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September 14, 2010

Google Instant launches amid controversy

Google's test of "streaming search" not so short lived

Google has just announced its “streaming search” service, Google Instant, is coming out of limited Beta testing and going live for all users. According to Adam Bunn, Head of Search at leading independent search and social marketing agency Greenlight, when it comes to search engine optimization campaigns (SEO), some websites may now suffer a drop in traffic. This service could also potentially result in complications for rank checking software and impact on search demand figures given by Google’s keyword tools.

With regards to paid search, Matthew Whiteway, Director of Campaign Management (paid search) at Greenlight, says it could play havoc with an advertiser’s Google Quality Score. Whiteway also says Google’s motives for doing this must be questioned. Given that the “longtail” is becoming increasingly important with search queries, the cost-per-click (CPC) Google can charge for “longtail” keywords is significantly lower than that on one or two keyword search queries. Therefore the more people search for “longtail” search queries, the less money Google can charge the advertiser.

Google’s development uses AJAX to dynamically serve search results as you type. Each time a new recognizable word or phrase is typed that changes the results set in a meaningful way, Google will fetch the search results for that word – without you having to hit “search”.  So, if you’re intending on searching for ‘scary books suitable for children’, Google might first fetch results when you’ve finished typing ‘scary’, then ‘scary book’, then ‘scary books’, then finally ‘scary books suitable for children’.

Bunn says this is a mightily impressive display of processing power on Google’s part.  Now, for every search you do Google may have to process anywhere from a couple to half a dozen different searches.  It has got to do this fast enough to keep up with your average typing speed.  This, on top of the fact that retrieving and sorting thousands of documents in a split second is already a modern marvel - admittedly one that few people spend much time thinking about. 

What of the impact for SEO?

According to Bunn, SEO campaigns including long multi -word keyword variants may see a drop in traffic for those keywords as a result of streaming search. Why? Users may now find something to click on before completely typing their originally intended search term (depending, of course, on Google being able to provide accurate enough results at an earlier stage in the search).  Consequently, to be visible/ show up in search results, it may become more important for websites to optimise for the shorter, constituent parts of longer keywords.

“For example, if a website has optimised for and holds good rankings for ‘cheap car insurance UK’, that term may lose search traffic as UK users find that the shorter ‘cheap car insurance’ returns several relevant looking results, negating the need to finish their sentence.”

Bunn points out that the constituent parts of longer keywords are often the types of generic keywords that are typically dominated by big brands and powerful sites with the cash to maintain rankings in an extremely competitive keyword space. 

“So for smaller websites, this could well be a case of first Google giveth (the “May Day update”) then it taketh away (streaming search results).

We’ll have to hold tight for the exact repercussions, which could also extend to complications for rank checking software (if AJAX is involved in retrieving search results) and impacts on the search demand figures given by Google’s keyword tools (if each stage in the streaming search counts as an impression). 

Ramifications for paid search

In relation to paid search, the question is whether Google will count each refresh / change of the search engine results pages (SERPS) as an impression for the advertiser. Whilst some advertisers will believe increasing the number of impressions / eyeballs that see their ad will help improve brand awareness and brand recall, from a pay per click (PPC) marketing perspective, this increase in unwanted impressions could play havoc with an advertisers Google Quality Score.

“At Greenlight, we are constantly looking for ways of reducing wasted impressions for our clients with the objective being to improve click through rate (CTR) and therefore relevancy, one of the most important factors of Google’s Quality Score”, says Whiteway. “If Google is going to count these dynamic changes / refreshes to the SERP then should we also expect to see some fundamental changes to the Quality Score algorithm, the keyword Match Types, or do we simply need to increase the number of negative keywords in the account to several hundred thousand? Only time will tell.”

Whiteway says Google’s motives for doing this must also be questioned. It has been suggested that as users become more and more internet savvy, the number of keywords used for each search query is increasing. For example, users looking for low annual percentage rate (APR) credit cards historically may have simply searched for “credit cards” and then conducted the filtering process manually, whereas in recent years the “longtail” has become increasingly searched for and important, with search queries such as “credit cards with low APR” for example, growing in popularity.

So why would the “Google financiers” not like this “longtail” trend? Money, says Whiteway.

“The CPC that Google can charge for ‘longtail’ keywords is significantly lower than that on more generic (one or two keyword search queries). Therefore the more people search for ‘longtail’ search queries, the less money Google can charge the advertiser.

With ‘streaming search’ therefore, Google is potentially ‘helping’ users find relevant results with less search term queries, thus increasing the number of clicks on generic terms and therefore increasing the CPC for the advertiser.”

Many would argue Google Instant is an example of Google flexing its technological processing power and helping users get results quicker. However there must also be some form of financial benefit for Google in making such a dramatic change to the way it finds and displays the results. Which explanation is true? We are unlikely to ever really know.

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