Google Instant Is Anything But a Time-Saver

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SEO is definitely not dead, because Google Instant doesn’t change the way results are ranked—it just lets users flip through more pages of them. So it’s as important as ever to make sure that your website is ranked highly for common keywords and combinations of keywords.

But closely related to SEO is search engine marketing, or SEM, the art of winning traffic through the keyword-based text ads that appear alongside the unpaid or “organic” search results. In the Google universe, this means knowing how to employ Google’s AdWords platform, which hands the top spot in a stack of text ads to the highest bidder in an electronic auction for the given keyword.

Google Instant won’t kill SEM any more than it will kill SEO. But it could throw search engine marketing into considerable chaos. Here’s why: People using Google Instant are likely to follow one of Google’s automated suggestions before they finish typing their full query, even if Google’s guesses don’t fit their original question exactly. As Yu puts it, “Google Instant is going to drive more volume to the keywords that are being auto-suggested.” (Studies suggest, in fact, that 60 to 70 percent of the time, searchers settle for one of the suggested keywords.) Which means, in turn, that there’s going to be a lot of competition for those keywords—and in particular for the common “short head” (as opposed to long tail) keywords and keyword combinations.

To use a simplified example: If the first page of results that pops up for the partial query “c-a-r” is about “car insurance,” then car insurance companies will have a bigger incentive to bid for that keyword combination than before. Which means there will be more bids. Which means it will cost more to win. Which means Google will make even more money. (It’s a little more complicated than this in reality, of course, since results shift depending on the user’s location and history.)

“Google is targeting to optimize its revenues,” says Horst Joepen, CEO of Searchmetrics, an SEO analytics vendor that’s based in Berlin, Germany, and recently opened a U.S. headquarters in New York. “AdWords users will either have to pay higher prices to participate in a short head race, or live in a cheaper but less frequently visited long tail.”

So, longer time-on-site and higher AdWords revenues—two pretty good reasons why Google would have assigned a team of more than 50 people to work on Google Instant.

Google said Wednesday that “using Google Instant can save 2-5 seconds per search.” I’m sure some of the participants in Google’s usability studies did find what they were looking for faster with Google Instant. But in the real world, my guess is that the multitude of new options will send people down unexpected alleys, adding to their overall search time. Which couldn’t possibly be a bad thing, from Google’s point of view.

But it might take a while for such effects to trickle down and have an effect on Google’s bottom line, or on AdWords users’ monthly bills. “Google is good at releasing incremental changes that may not result in huge impacts immediately, but over the long term certainly affect the way people search and do business on the Web,” says GinzaMetrics’ Grieselhuber. “That’s one of the things I really like about them.”

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Wade Roush is a contributing editor at Xconomy. Follow @wroush

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