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Google Instant Isn't Instant Gratification

Over the past few days, I’ve been playing around with Google Instant and reading a lot about it. There is a pretty broad range of opinion, and I’ve been drawing some of my own conclusions. Will Google Instant change the face of SEO or PPC? Will it save us time searching? Will people adopt or reject it? Anybody offering opinions on these questions is merely speculating. I’ve got my own speculations, and I’ll share them here.

The questions posed above are yet to be answered, and really, only time will tell. But, since I’ve had a few clients ask my opinion, I thought I’d provide some of my thoughts here where they can be “programmed, categorized, or easily referenced.

Does Google Instant Really Save me Time?

Here’s a quote from Google’s blog:

The user benefits of Google Instant are many—but the primary one is time saved. Our testing has shown that Google Instant saves the average searcher two to five seconds per search. That may not seem like a lot at first, but it adds up. With Google Instant, we estimate that we’ll save our users 11 hours with each passing second!

I’m not sure who they are trying to sell with this argument, but it certainly isn’t me. I’m sorry, you’re going to save ME 11 hours every second? Oh, wait, no, that’s a collective WE. Yeah. Don’t care.

But let’s look at that deeper. Here is another fun quote from Google:

Before Google Instant, the typical searcher took more than 9 seconds to enter a search term, and we saw many examples of searches that took 30-90 seconds to type.

Maybe Google has data to back this up, but I have to question what they describe as the “typical search”. Nine seconds? I’m wondering if there is a difference between “typical” and “average”? I know I’m splitting hairs here, but I can’t fathom that the average person takes 9 seconds to enter query.

But wait…there’s more! Google tells us they have seen examples of search taking up to a minute and a half to perform! Clearly there are other issues at play here than someone taking 90 seconds to type in a search query. Typing slow is one thing, but taking 90 seconds is someone who got distra… oooh, shiny!

I’m sorry, where was I? Oh, I was searching for someth… oooh, shiny!

Okay, I’m back. Promise.

Is Google Instant really going to help those who are distracted that easily? Doubtful. Sure, slow typers will get results as they type, but does providing irrelevant results really save time?

It may, but not necessarily the way we are being told by Google.

My guess here is that, because results are being displayed for partial phrases, Google is counting those results being delivered as part of the whole “saving time” benefit. Sure, you saved time on your partial searches, but these aren’t the searches you’re really looking for. Move along. Move along.

Instant Doesn’t Mean Relevant

Getting results fast doesn’t mean the results you get are the results you want. I have a client that suggested that because of Google Instant they needed to be ranked for a partial keyword phrase, so when people start typing it in they’ll come up in the results. However, an “instant” search for this partial phrase is NOT the same thing as a search for the partial phrase.

Here are a couple of examples. Let’s say you sell flow meters. Now, with Google instant, people searching for flow meters start with the word “flow”. Is that a relevant term? Well no, because an “instant” search for flow returns results for “flower factory”.

Click the image to enlarge the instant results for “flow”:

instant flow.png

vs. this image for a regular search for “flow”:


Neither of these results are particularly relevant. If “flow” wasn’t a relevant keyword before, it doesn’t become a relevant keyword with Google Instant. But, more on that later.

Second example:

Let’s say you sell motorcycle batteries. Google wants you to believe that as you type that phrase, the instant results will help you find relevant sites more quickly. But, does it?

Motorcycle Instant

It’s not until you hit “motorc” that the results become anywhere near relevant, and even still, people searching for “motorcycle” are a far cry from searching for “motorcycle battery”.

Complete “motorcycle” in the search bar and you get results for “motorcycle helmets”. Nope, still not relevant. It’s not until you get to “motorcycle ba” that you get actual results for “motorcycle batteries”. So let’s see, how much time did I save? As much as it takes to type “tteries”. If I’m a 90 second search typer, that might have saved me 2-5 seconds… or, according to Google: 11 hours!

Unintended Results Slow Down Search

Despite Google’s claim that instant results are speeding up search, my suspicion is that, in reality, the opposite is happening. Take away the fact that results are being delivered more quickly, we have to keep in mind that these results are for unintended searches.

Look again at the motorcycle example above. The searcher is presented with six different sets of search results just by typing in the word “motorcycle”. Five of the six are completely irrelevant. For those searching for a motorcycle battery, all of the above results are irrelevant. But, along the way, you’re delivered several sets of unintended results.

But, here’s the problem. Google instant will force people to slow down their intended search as they look through the unintended results being displayed. Google says it’s all done at the same time, and maybe it is for those people that take 90 seconds to type a search phrase like Google found in their research. But, for the rest of us, we are either typing faster than our eyes can scan OR we’re looking at the keyboard hunting for the next key to peck.

In either scenario, to stop what we are doing and scan the results takes time. Because results change by the letter, in many cases, each letter causes a delay as I type and scan.

Is this saving me time? No, not when the results are irrelevant. And we know they are, not just by my examples above, but because we understand how search behavior works.

Searchers often perform a search, scan the results, realize that it’s not quite what they want, and then go back to perform another search. Maybe they click on a few sites, but rarely do people find what they want on their first search. Refinement is critical to successful searching.

Google Instant provides opportunities for the searcher to get instant refinement, which is good, but looking through the unintended results along the way becomes problematic. I now have six sets of search results to look through before I get to “motorcycle”, only to realize that none of them, including the last one, provides the specific results that I need when looking for a Honda motorcycle battery.

If I search for “motorcycle battery”, I’ll likely find plenty of results. But, I’m lazy. I don’t want to look through all those sites to make sure they sell Honda batteries, so I’ll go back and search for “Honda motorcycle battery” to pull up only those sites that do. This is the way searchers generally behave.

Getting to the Long Tail Quicker

I think the biggest benefit for instant search is an unintended benefit. Those who are skeptical, like me, believe that Google Suggest (the drop down box that provides a list of phrase recommendations based on what you type) and Google Instant (the results that appear as you type) are all a way to force people into using fewer keywords when searching. Aaron Wall covered this quite well in his post “How Google Instant Changes the SEO Landscape“. I think he’s right, but I also hope he’s wrong.

Yes, Google wants to drive more traffic to fewer phrases in order to make them more competitive. If Google can push more searchers to “motorcycle battery Honda” rather than “Honda motorcycle battery”, the PPC bidding for the first phrase becomes much more competitive, which causes PPC pricing to get inflated. Good for Google, bad for businesses.

But, the unintended benefit that I see with Google Instant is that this helps searchers refine their searches more quickly than they otherwise would.

Without Instant, you have to search, scan results, then go back and search again. How many times you do this depends on a couple things: 1) How targeted each set of results is for your specific need. If it’s not targeted, you keep refining until it is. And, 2) How soon you get frustrated from poor results and give up.

Google Instant can help eliminate some of that search frustration because each search isn’t a complete cycle. You search as you type, which means you can refine your search as you go. You can type in your phrase, scan the results, add qualifiers or change words and phrases much easier than before Instant, when each of these required a completely separate search.

The trick here is not to get sidetracked by the unintended search results. Don’t start scanning the results until you’ve completed your entire phrase, then scan and re-search as needed.

This is my primary frustration with Instant. It causes me to break my train of thought while I search. I’m typing in “Honda motorcycle battery” and I stop mid-way to scan results. I lose my search momentum, if you will. I then have to think about what I was searching for and finish my phrase, only to get interrupted by search results again.

Searchers will have to search with partial blinders on. They are going to have to re-train themselves in the way they search, learning to ignore the results until they get a good phrase in place. Once they start scanning the results, the ability to quickly refine the results with changes in the search bar is fantastic. On the fly search refinement! Now, that I like.

No Instant Search Gratification

So, where do I think Aaron is wrong? I’m believing Google Instant results actually will increase searches for long-tail phrases rather than the other way around. I mean, if searchers are accustomed to refining their search because the results were not relevant, why would that behavior change when the results are produced faster? Searchers will continue to refine, they just get to do it faster. The key will be for them to break free from the suggestions Google is trying to corral them into.

The best thing about Google Instant isn’t that we get instant results, because most of those results are really unintended search results. But, it allows us to refine our searches to get the results we want more quickly. This won’t make us get instant gratification in our search, but may help make us all better searchers.

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