What Are The Likely Impacts of Google Instant?

google-logoSince Google announced its search enhancement Google Instant last month, approximately 40,000 articles have appeared about its likely impacts on Organic and Paid Search. At this point, much of the discussion has been speculative because only time will provide the empirical evidence to support the implications that have been hypothesized.

WHAT IS GOOGLE INSTANT?

For those who have been living in a cave over the last month, Google Instant predicts the keyword phrases users are likely use in their  searches as soon as they begin entering characters into the search box.  These keyword phrases, derived from Google’s history of search statistics and probabilities, are presented in the form of drop-down menus.  The user can scroll down to the phrase that best matches what they are looking for and hit return, rather than coming up with their own phrasing, which may or may not produce the intended results.  Alternatively, if users do not immediately see what they are looking for in the initial drop-down menus, they can continue typing to refine  the search so that the drop-downs become more specific and relevant to their personal needs.  But what are the implications of this enhancement for users, advertisers, Google itself and the entire search landscape?

IMPLICATIONS FOR USERS

Save Time. In their press release, Google stated that this extension to their service will enable users to save time by more quickly finding the information they are looking for.  Individuals who do not type in the most popular keyword phrases sometimes see results that are not relevant to their intentions and have to submit another set of keywords, in a trial-and- error fashion, until they see more relevant results.  This is said to frustrate users who cannot find what they are looking for without spending a lot of time.   The new system provides a more streamlined user experience.

Increased Censorship.  As part of its effort to reduce the exposure of pornography, violence and hate speech to people (especially children), Google Instant provides blank pages for keywords that it predicts will be followed by explicit terms most frequently typed in.  So if you type in the name “Pamela Anderson,” for instance, no search results will appear because statistics show the most likely words to follow are “sex videos.”  However, if you are really searching for Ms. Anderson’s well-articulated support for PETA, you are out of luck unless you go the extra distance by hitting the “Return” button on you keyboard or adding additional verbiage to your search.  However there are many inconsistencies regarding which keywords are blacklisted.  While typing the term “gay” into a search box yields pages of results, typing “lesbian” or “bisexual” produces none.

Greater Choice. If users are not happy with the results obtained from Google Instant, they can easily turn this feature off and simply use their own keyword phrases to determine their search results.

Use with Mobile Devices. As a larger portion of  advertisers’ budgets are directed at users of mobile devices, Google Instant–when made available for mobile search– will become even more important.  Due to the additional hassle of typing text on compromised keyboards,  people tend to  minimize the number of characters that they type on their mobile devices.   This will provide a tremendous advantage to Google, who’s dominance in web search has not yet translated into dominance on mobile platforms.

IMPLICATIONS FOR ADVERTISERS

Most of these enhancements make a lot of sense from the user’s perspective.  They do, in fact, streamline the search process for users.  But one thing that was not discussed at the press conference is the implications that these changes pose for advertisers.  Most of the  remainder of this post is intended to provide advertisers with a better understanding of the likely impacts these changes will have on their own strategies to cost-effectively acquire customers via SEM (pay-per-click) campaigns that make them more visible in sponsored search rankings,  and their investments in SEO, to improve their rankings in organic search results.

Impact on SEM (Paid Search)

  • Reduced Effectiveness of Long-Tail Search Strategies.  The most popular keywords that users type in (or in this case, scroll to)  are highly competitive and are far more expensive to purchase than long-tail phrases.  Many advertisers have turned to long-tail search parameters, which contain many words, because they are less expensive to purchase and drive better targeted (albeit fewer) prospects to their site.  Small company’s benefit not only by limiting their paid search expenditures, but by increasing the ratio of leads that convert to actual customers and sales.  This increased efficiency can dramatically reduce the cost of acquiring new customers for small businesses, enabling them to take market share from their larger competitors.  This seemed to fit well with Google’s positioning as a company that wants to democratize the web.  However Google Instant will reduce the likelihood  that users will type in these longer keyword phrases, because they can simply select the most popular “short tail” phrases that appear in the drop-downs.   This will likely diminish the effectiveness of long-tail keyword strategies, making it more difficult for small businesses to acquire customers via paid search.
  • Concentrated Power For Large, Elite Advertisers.  By encouraging users to select from a narrower range of keyword phrases, Google will further the popularity of these shorter phrases.  This, in-turn, will  drive up the value of such keywords to advertisers,  making them even more competitive to bid on, resulting in higher prices that only the most well-heeled companies can afford.   Now that Google has become a huge company in its own right, perhaps it is no longer interested in democratizing the web.  On the contrary,  Google is leveraging its dominant market share to change the rules of search in a manner that favors the interests of so-called “category killers” (e.g., Amazon for books,  Crutchfield for electronics, Expedia for travel)  who will be able to maintain top positions in Google’s search results.  Of course the bidding wars will translate into greater revenues for Google as well.  By reducing the number of accounts it deals with to secure most of its revenue, moreover, Google will reduce its sales costs and further improve the profitability of its paid search business.

Impact on SEO.   For the reasons cited above, Google Instant may cause advertisers to exceed their cost-per-acquisition (CPA) targets and require a better understanding of the lifetime value of their customers, to justify spending more to acquire new customers.  For many advertisers,  their CPA for paid search will be too high, encouraging them to focus on optimizing their rankings in organic search.

  • Increased importance to obtain top positions in organic search. Because the drop-down menus take up additional space, fewer organic search results will appear “above the fold” on users’ screens.  This will make it even more important for companies to be listed within the top 1 or 2 positions in organic search rankings.  To help offset this effect, perhaps Google should do away with the sponsored search results that appear above the organic ranking, and only place sponsored results in the right-hand column. This is unlikely, however, given the amount of money Google makes from including the top paid search results at the top of the page.
  • Increased impressions will reduce some CTRs and paid search rankings.  As more sites are exposed to viewers’ eyes when they add words to the search box, Google will count some of these views as actual “impressions”.  By definition,  sites that receive more impressions without associated increases in clicks, will have reduced click-through rates (CTR = the # of clicks divided by the number of impressions).  Google uses a combination of advertisers’ bid prices and CTRs to determine which advertisers obtain the highest paid search rankings for any given keyword or phrase.  This enables users to “cast their votes” on which ads are most relevant to their searches and optimizes Google’s revenues (revenue = bid prices x clicks).  Sites that receive more impressions that do not encourage clicks from Google Instant will likely have lower CTRs and will see their positions lowered in paid search results.  To compensate, they will need to increase their bids.
  • Insights for Link-Building. Google continuously displays a changing set of URLs as it guesses what it is you’re looking for. Since Google’s results-on-the-fly-as-you-type are still based on trust and that trust in large part based on links, what you are really seeing can provide a lot of direction as to the sites that will provide the most “link-juice” for an advertiser’s  inbound link-building intiatives.

IMPLICATIONS FOR THE SEARCH INDUSTRY

Since Microsoft brought Bing to market, Google has faced increased competition to maintain its dominant position within search. The amount of time it takes Google users to find what they are looking for has been a weakness.  During its 100 million dollar advertising campaign for Bing, Microsoft capitalized on this weakness when it emphasized that Bing enables users to find their intended results more quickly.  Given all of the free publicity generated by Google Instant, Google has been able to re-establish itself as the category-killer in search, without spending a single dollar on advertising expenditures.

As the competition moves to mobile platforms, moreover, Google has been concerned that it will lose market share as many heavyweights (e.g., Apple) have entered this space in a big way.  Since Google Instant will be particularly helpful to users of mobile devices, it will slow down the momentum of Apple and other key players  striving to become the dominant players in mobile search.

At this point, the above implications of Google Instant are speculative.  Only time  will determine it’s actual implications for users, advertisers, Google itself and the entire search landscape. What do you think?

How do you like the user experience provided by Google Instant?

How do you think it will impact advertisers’ organic and paid search initiatives?

How important is Google Instant to Google itself, and how will it change the dynamics and market share of the search engine industry?

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