10 Concerns With Google Instant

On Wednesday, Google released the much-rumored and anticipated major change to its search. Google tends to make many small algorithm changes on weekly and sometimes daily basis, but this change was quite dramatic and will likely change Web business and how consumers use the Web in a number of ways. Here are ten of them.

1) Time Will Tell

[login]It is usually wise to see how things play out. Right now we do not have that option, as Google Instant has only been live for two days. Google itself will change the product many times within the next few days, weeks and months to add many little improvements, so the Google Instant we are beginning to understand today, will not be the Google Instant which will live on and will see mass adoption from users (if it will indeed live on).

2) Winners

Google is the long-term winner with this, because Google Instant will enable Google to take a much larger revenue share from its ad inventory. People will be exposed to more search results and therefore more sponsored search results. That means there will be an increase in the click-through rate of the sponsored search results.

Microsoft will be a surprise winner in this because such a drastic change by Google will inevitably alienate some Google users and cause them to switch their search engines. Since Bing is the only large remaining search engine, most of the alienated Google users will flee to Bing. Overall, Microsoft does not have much to lose and a lot to gain because search is not its main business.

3) Losers

The search engine optimization industry will definitely suffer from the introduction of Google Instant, because the change in paradigm decreases the emphasis on search engine optimization. Publishers who use AdSense also lose out because they will have smaller-quantity and lower-quality ads left over to display due to the increased search-time ad-click-through rate of sponsored searches.

Quite importantly, people who have stopped innovating will lose. They will not be able to adapt to the paradigm shift if the shift’s effects are negative on their business. Additionally, people who did not have diversified customer acquisition strategies, and have relied mostly on SEO, may also be at a disadvantage and in panic.

Pages that are displayed in Google results 5 through 10 are likely to see a small decrease in click-through because they appear below the fold of most screens. So while a user is refining their search a number of times, those pages are displayed but not seen, while the 1-4 search results are seen nearly all the time.

4) Will This Kill SEO?

Google has gone as far as putting out an official video talking about how this change will not kill SEO (Search Engine Optimization Industry) but the truth is that Google Instant will definitely have a large impact on SEO. It will de-emphasize some advanced tactics used by brilliant and creative search engine optimizers. But few core SEO themes will actually gain more attention.

Large part of SEO is link-building. A good link is one which increases the site’s importance in the eyes of search engine algorithms. But a great link is one that increases importance in the eyes of search engines and drives traffic via the link. Moving forward such links will garner more attention and efforts. And that is probably a reasonable thing for the SEO industry to adapt to.

Unfortunately for the SEO industry, these changes put focus on the fact that SEO should not be relied on too heavily, and more attention has to be paid to diversification of traffic sources. Ultimately, this will de-emphasize the importance of many SEO techniques, and search engine optimization specialists. So while Google Instant definitely does not kill SEO, it highlights how fragile SEO efforts can sometimes be.

5) Why This Was Done

This improvement was a logical one after a number of previous innovations by Google, most notably Google Suggest, which was the auto-completion of popular search terms. Google provided a good explanation for innovation in that direction: increased speed of searching. Users have tended to voice additional concerns like “why is Google telling me what to search for?” and “what is in it for Google if I do the searches it suggests and not my own?”

Here are some thoughts on these topics. The suggested results are probably cached, so it is easier for Google to provide search results for them. For the environmentalists out there, the cached Google search is easier on the environment than the non-cached searches. Of course, Google Instant seems to have slightly changed that since it has to do a few searches before the person is satisfied with their query entry.

On a more important note than the environment, and that is money (just joking), the new way to display search results should have a direct impact to increase Google’s revenue. With the addition of Google Instant, the person searching is definitely exposed to many more sponsored listings than they were before, which is likely to give an uptick in ad click-through rate for the sponsored ads. In addition, Google has to rely less on publishers (this may kill lots of blogs) to serve the ads as it will use up more of its own ad inventory.

6) Will This Improve Google Revenue?

As I have mentioned before, one obvious change will be that people searching will be exposed to more search results, and therefore more sponsored search results. This is likely to improve Google’s revenue via increased click-through of the ads.That may be bad for publishers who use Google AdSense as their ad inventory as they will serve up ads with smaller inventory since more of the ad inventory will be clicked on during the searching instead of when the person lands on the site. Plus, in slightly shifting the place where ads are clicked, Google will not have to split the revenue share with the publishers. This should increase Google’s revenue and margins.

7) What Are Good Practices Moving Forward?

If you are a search engine optimization specialist, focus on building links that also drive traffic. That way your efforts will be maximized. If you are a business, you have two options: 1) Focus SEO for some terms that Google suggests early in the entry of the search query, or 2) Focus on user retention so that the traffic you do get, comes back to your site. Right now it looks like free traffic from Google is likely to decrease for most sites and that is something most companies will just have to find a way to work around. If you are a person searching, it probably makes sense to play around with Google Instant instead of turning it off because while it is still buggy and clunky to use, it does have glimpses of how it can be quite useful.

8) Bugs and Usability Problems in Google Instant

Google users discovered many bugs and usability problems in Google Instant during the first release day. Some of the search terms were bringing up quite good suggestions while other search words were bringing up absolutely ridiculous suggestions. Surely this will all get fixed in the next few days, weeks and months, but here is one example of terrible usability introduced by Google Instant that I have personally experienced.

I am currently planning a camping trip and I wanted to search for something like “Bears dangerous for camping in California.” And yes, I am that much of a nerd to search for that. After typing “B” I was shown results having to do with Bank of America. This was strange and distracting. Since then I have typed “B” a number of times and I get results for BART, which is a local government organization for San Francisco, where I live. It seems that this was a patch on the part of Google to decrease the randomness of the single-letter results and have it appeal to me through locality, since their data must have reflected that I am in San Francisco yesterday as well.

In any case, just as this segue was distracting in the article, the Bank of America and BART results were distracting for me in my search. Since my original query was 6 words, I got a number of other results, was distracted by some results along the way, and never actually finished my long query, and never got my answer. So if indeed, bears represent a danger when camping in California, and you may never hear from me again, this is the result of poor Google Instant usability. And if the best metric in search is whether the user is ultimately taken to the page he/she wants, Google just became much less user-friendly and they have to address this problem soon.

9) Usability Gains

Google Instant is not all bad when it comes to usability. It may be distracting in some ways, but the distraction does not have to always be a bad thing. With distraction comes discovery of new things. Perhaps Google is trying to experiment with new paradigms of how we interact with knowledge, letting us discover it instead of search for something we want. We all have to ask ourselves: how often does it happen that we ourselves do not even know what we want? I think it isn’t an uncommon scenario. Plus I found bears.org along the way, so who knows, if I don’t get eaten by bears due to Google Instant, I may become a preservation activist thanks to Google Instant’s discovery mechanism.

10) Long Tail vs. Short Tail Searches

This item is last, but definitely not least. In recent years, Google has been putting quite a bit of emphasis on the longer searches because their data analysis was showing that people were increasing the length of their searches. This observation by Google was highlighted with their expansion of the Google search box to accommodate the longer search strings that people were entering. Many things pointed in that direction until now. With the instant discovery of search results as you type, more people will stop at the shorter queries. The development of longer searches vs. shorter searches will be interesting to observe as it unfolds.

Bonus Insight

Notice that Google officially touts this new change as a time saver. But consider how much time will be lost or taken up by “discovering” new sites that were not your original intention. Browsing the new sites is surely going to take up more time than the 1 second saved while performing the search. This just underlines the paradigm confusion which will be interesting to observe moving forward.

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