Google Instant search and its effect on SEO

Google launched its Instant search on Wednesday, September 8, 2010, and it will likely prove to be one of the major wathershed events in the history of Google search.

Instant uses the keyword suggestion drop-down list to populate the search engine result page (SERP) even befor ethe user has submitted the search query by clicking the Search button or hitting the return key on the keyboard.

The result is that users are presented with links, ads, maps, images and other SERP assets while they’re typing the keywords they want to search.

This can have all kinds of consequences for website owners looking to attract traffic through search engine optimization (SEO). Below are screen shots that outline one search scenario.

The user in this scenario is looking for home improvement stores and starts typing that very phrase. Once he gets to “hom” Google suggests “Home Depot” as search and populates the page with the results for that search. Screen shot:

As you can see on the next image Home Depot holds on to that spot through “home ” until the user gets to “home i”. At that point Google suggests “home improvement” as search string and populates the page based on that. Screen shot:

Once the user reaches “home improvement” while typing Google’s first suggestion is “home improvement loans” but “home improvement stores” is in the suggestion list and if the user highlights that suggestion Google will populate the page accordingly. Screen shot:

As you can see Lowe’s is the number one link in the SERP. With the regular non-Instant Google search the user would have typed in and submitted “home improvement stores” and he would not have been presented a SERP until he submitted the search. Thus Google Instant introduces at least two challenges for the web site owner, in this case Lowe’s:

1) The user might be distracted by an automatically populated SERP that isn’t relevant to the intended query.

2) The SERP-on-type system gives competing websites an opportunity to win the click, so to speak, that likely would have gone to the web site owner in the traditional SEP-on-submit system.

For big companies with relatively strong brands the best response may be to try build and capture brand searches, but as the screenshot below shows that’s by no means a guarantee for success:

An important question for both search engine optimizers and AdWords advertisers is how Google Instant will affect so-called long-tail and multi word queries that often convert better than shorter, broader or popular keywords or phrases. If users start using the SERP-rendering drop-down list as a way to browse search results – at least the ones above the fold, which is a story all in itself – then it could substantially reduce the volume of long-tail searches.

The immediate effect on SEO seems to be threefold:

1) Getting into the top 2-4 SERP positions above the fold becomes even mor eimportant than before.

2) Manipulating what goes into the search phrase suggestion dropdown list – presumably through huge numbers of automated queries from server across the nation and the globe – also becomes more important.

3) The wording of the meta description that is often used by Google in the SERP also becomes more important as it will live in a more dynamic and fluid environment than before.

The ultimate test is of course what searchers themselves think about the Google Instant. If they are put off by the jumping and flickering SERP and its potentially way off-base sets of links then perhaps Instant will fade away. I think Instant is just a first step towards more interactive, suggestive and visual search results.