An In-Depth Look At The Impact of Google Instant On SEO and PPC – Is SEO Dead?

An In-Depth Look At The Impact of Google Instant On SEO and PPC – Is SEO Dead?

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Last week, Google introduced a new capability to its search engine results page, a functionality called “Google Instant.”  When the announcement hit, people were clamoring to chime in with respect to the effect that Google Instant might have on search engine optimization (SEO) and pay per click (PPC) advertising.  The age-old question of “is SEO dead?” started popping up almost immediately on Twitter and throughout the blogosphere.  So, is SEO dead?

Of course not. For those that understand what SEO is, SEO will never die. Techniques for SEO are ever-changing and although Google Instant Search will not kill SEO, there may be some changes to look out for in terms of user search behavior which may impact SEO strategy.

Our friends over at Covario, a leading SEM and SEO software and services company, have taken a deep dive into Google Instant and have offered up this excellent guest post to highlight, in-depth, changes resulting from Google Instant Search and to look into the potential effects that Google Instant Search may have on SEO and PPC.

About Google Instant Search

Just in case you haven’t heard the clamor web-wide regarding the new capability, here’s a brief description:

Google Instant is what Google is calling the next wave in its goal to make search more targeted, faster, and better able to understand you and what you want to see.

  • Explicitly, Google Instant (per Google) combines predictive search (which we have already seen for years) with a real time visualization of the results of that search.
  • Google Instant displays what it predicts you are searching for, allowing you to not only see your results faster, but also see results along the way as you type.

We Believe This Change Is Significant!

Though we caution advertisers to realize that all prognostications on the impact of Google Instant on user behavior at this point are just that – supposition.  This article will discuss Google Instant, what its goal is from a user perspective, what we predict this change will mean for SEO and PPC performance, and how we plan to test our prediction.

What Is Google Instant Trying To Do?

For years, Google has tried to predict what you were searching for on their engine.  Google does this to (a) reduce the time it takes for a searcher to log a query (and therefore provide a better user experience) and (b) because it saves Google in processing time with its support services (if you take two seconds to type a query versus four seconds, given the number of searches conducted, Google estimates this saves them 360 million hours of data center time annually. This is not going away.  Google will continue to try to predict your search, as you probably have experienced with the drop down menu you now see – like in the example below for “Covario.”

Google Instant is taking this one step further by adding the visualization and changing the results page that gets updated in real-time, as you type.

What Does Google Instant Mean For SEO?

The first key change Google Instant causes is in the drop down “suggestion box” that attempts to predict queries.  This, depending on the query, occupies one and sometime up to three of the advertisement positions on the “all important” first page.  Google is rendering the paid and universal search listings as high as possible, but is pushing the SEO results “below the fold.”  Whereas in the past, a standard web search would yield four organic listings above the fold, this does not happen now until searchers commit to their search and the page re-renders.

This means that top ranking is now more important than ever. We believe users are less likely to scroll below the fold as related results are instantly reconfigured as the search query is completed.  Before a user would type in a search query, check the results, refine the search and then repeat the process until they found what they were looking for, there is now the potential that Google Instant helps with the delivery of this process.

Here is another example for the term “home mortgage”.  There are no less than four (4) paid listings showing in the prime Google Instant real estate and only one organic listing.  The four (4) organic results return once the searcher commits to the search and the standard search page is rendered as the suggestion box recedes.

From an SEO perspective – if Google Instant drives the changes we expect – CTRs on positions 1 and 2 organically will rise at the expense of positions 3 and 4.  Being 1 and 2 is now key.

This means that SEO tactics must change.  Traditionally, we’ve seen that users tend to spend a good portion of their time examining meta descriptions and we often recommend placing calls to action in the meta description to grab searchers’ attention and get them to click. However, with results changing so quickly, we see calls to action potentially moving into the Title tag as users spend less time examining the results and will rely more on those parts of the result they can examine quickly.

Perhaps the biggest impact of Google Instant is the impact the function will have on long-tail searches.  Let’s say a user goes to Google to search for “Las Vegas Hotel Deals.”

  • After typing in just “Las Vegas” the user sees a paid ad for and the organic entry for the Las Vegas Tourism website.
  • What is the impact of those impressions on the user’s search behavior?
  • How likely is it that users will abandon their search and click on one of those results or the map of Las Vegas that appears just below the top paid result?
  • Or, are users more likely to finish their search and ignore the populating results?
  • Will the page populating with results just become insignificant noise to searchers as they continue to use Google as they have been for years?

Arguments can be made for and against the increasing importance of long-tail, but there will be some effect from Google’s Instant search.  Our belief is that Google has tested the accuracy of their predictive search results over the past years.  Our bet is that it is pretty accurate – say 25% of the time it predicts correctly (this is a made up number – just for example).  That means that 25% of long-tail searches will be rendered correctly off the first keyword and some percent of users will click on the results.  The other 75% will modify and append their searches as results appear and are unsatisfactory.  For the 75% it can be argued that long-tail will gain importance because users will see right away that their initial search wasn’t going to work, and will thus mold their search query until they see results more to their liking.  It will also be interesting to see whether the conversion rates on those “predicted” results that get activated improve or degrade versus the full search query conversion rates – something that is measurable over time and will ultimately dictate user experience.

We recommend continuing to incorporate your long-tail terms into your SEO, and closely monitor the before-and-after performance to see how user behavior has adapted to these changes.  Do this for the top 10-25 multi-keyword phrases for the SEO program for 30 days.  Then, if the performance degrades, you know that SEO tactics on long-tail have to change.

What Does Google Instant Mean For PPC?

With the prominent placement of the PPC results in the Google Instant page rendering, it is our prediction that Google Instant will also have a large impact on PPC performance and tactics.

So the first issue is “what now constitutes an impression?”  Google has released the following information to address this.   An impression will be counted if the user:

  • Presses ‘Enter’
  • Clicks on ‘Search’
  • Selects a prediction
  • Stays on page for >3 seconds
  • Clicks on a result
  • Clicks on a refinement (maps, news, latest)

The good news?  Advertisers will now receive sub three-second impressions for free (“free” meaning that these impressions do not impact quality score), so long as the user does not interact with the page in any of the ways mentioned above.  If your brand is present for all Google Instant refinements as searchers complete their queries, this is an indication that your products or services are relevant to what they seek.

The bad news?  If this change does in fact lead to shorter queries, AdWords CPCs may go up for many terms over the next several weeks, due to lower inventory of valuable keywords; more advertisers bidding on the same real estate means higher prices and lower ROI.  Good for Google.  Bad for advertisers.  Consumers – well, they are likely unconcerned.

What about quality score?  Google has stated that Google Instant does not change the way they determine the relevance or quality of your ads.  Advertisement performance will be judged relative to that of others, as it has been in the past – give the new definition of an impression.

We do believe that this change will impact your CTR and therefore your quality score.  Generally speaking, many advertisers can expect their impression count to go down on longer tail terms.  This translates to lower awareness, which over time, means lower market share.

What about volume?  We expect advertisers to see a drop in traditionally high volume head terms. Let’s use an example:

  • Do a search for the high volume keyword “mortgage.”
  • Google Instant Search predicts the keyword to be “mortgage calculator.”
  • Google Instant populates the results shown for “mortgage calculator.”

The search volume for “mortgage” will drop and the volume for “mortgage calculator” will increase, making “mortgage” a less desirable keyword to optimize for than “mortgage calculator” if users do what is expected – get distracted from their original search and activate one of the Google Instant results.

And CPCs?  We believe Google Instant is essentially institutionalizing broad match keyword bidding – aka, “the most expensive way to advertise on Google.” With Google Instant, however, there is a more salient ramification – ads are actually being shown – mostly paid ads – and off the board match of the first word in the multi-word search query.  PPC programs are going to migrate toward strategies that broad match off the initial terms in the most popular multi-keyword queries – as these will drive a larger share of the impression volume – and we expect CPCs on broad match to increase (at least in the short-term, until the conversion rates on these terms are better understood).  Advertisers will have to budget more toward Google in order to drive similar volume.

What to Test And What To Watch For?

There is no need to change metrics.  Monitoring all KPIs related to SEO and SEM should, of course, remain consistent. However, we also recommend filtering those metrics by browser.  Here’s why.  Google Instant search is not supported in Internet Explorer Versions below 8, Firefox Versions less below Version 3 – so results from those browsers are not being impacted by this feature.  Google Instant search is supported in Chrome v5/6, Firefox v3, Safari v5 for Mac and Internet Explorer v8.

The key metrics to track are the Google search volumes of your targeted keywords in the coming months in Google Adwords to understand what the impact there is on the potential of your targeted keywords.  If the search volume for your targeted keywords is trending down in Google Adwords, then adjust your strategy to focus on those keywords with more potential.  Also consider that keyword volume may trend up as Google now counts a three-second stay on a search page as an impression.

Google Instant Replay

To review, we believe Google Instant is important to search advertisers and the ramifications of the system need to be taken seriously.

  • For SEO – CTRs on position 3 and 4 organically will drop and go up for positions 1 and 2, making SEO more focused and more important than ever.
  • For PPC – we expect that, in the short term, this will drive CPCs up and CTRs down.  Advertisers will have to pay more, through increased use of broad match strategies, to maintain same results.
  • And – ALL OF THIS IS SPECULATION.  This needs to be tested.  We should be able to see the results in the next 30-45 days to see if the ramifications we lay out in this note will indeed manifest themselves.

About our Guest Expert – Jeff MacGurn
Jeff MacGurn is Senior Manager of Search at Covario managing Covario’s SEO team providing strategic services for Covario’s Clients which include more than sixty Fortune 500 companies and Internet 100 companies. Jeff began working in SEO in 2000 in the Financial industry and also brings more than a decade of Software Development and Web Development experience to Covario. Jeff has worked on web programming and development for companies such as NBC, UFC, and the NBA. As a member of Covario’s SEO team, Jeff has worked with a variety of Fortune 500 companies managing online marketing programs such as Wells Fargo, Sony, Samsung, T-Mobile and Research in Motion.


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