As you may have noticed, Google just added a new functionality to its search page (on most browsers for U.S. users for now) that they’re calling “Instant”. What does it do? Well, if you go to the Google home page (google.com) and search for something you’ll see that not only are there search suggestions in text form being auto-completed for you, but now different pages from Google’s index of search results are being displayed as you modify your search query. I won’t post screenshots since you should be able to check this out on your own – unless you’re on a mobile phone (Google says it plans to support Instant on mobile soon- which I assume means the mobile version of Google) or your internet connection is too slow (yes, this Instant search “enhancement” is going to eat up more of your computer and internet resources). The good news about that is that you have the option to turn off Instant or it will turn itself off if your internet connection is too slow.
Google claims that Instant makes searches faster, predictions smarter, and results instant, cutting the average time of a search down by 2-5 seconds. Well, after a few weeks now of using Instant regularly here’s my take on it:
For one, Google Instant is kind of a fun tool for Webmasters and SEO’ers to see their web pages appear in Google search results on the fly using a variety of keywords and phrases. Say I’ve got a bicycle shop in Albany and I’m running an SEO campaign using the key phrases “Albany bicycle shop”. Using Google Instant, I can type in “Albany bicycle shop” or stop one word short and only type in “Albany bicycle” and see if my website is coming up anywhere on the first page. Maybe, instead, I think people are more likely to search for “bicycle repair shop in albany ny” or just “bikes”. I can test all of these queries out and see Google’s first page results without having to take the time out to hit the “enter” key. There’s just something fun I guess about seeing the results change one word or phrase at a time without having to commit to one particular query.
But this is where I think the benefits of Google Instant end – at least for most of us in Albany. Because search results display for each letter or word that is entered on the fly, results tend to bias the broadest search query. For example, searching for “Albany bicycle shop” with Instant will first show results for “Albany”, and then the new results for “Albany bicycle”, and then finally, the results for “Albany bicycle shop” – if the searcher even gets that far. One reason Google may be able to claim that Instant cuts down the average search by 2-5 seconds may be because the average searcher is a very slow typer and/OR isn’t exactly sure how to search for what they want. In my experience working with Mom, Dad, Grandma, Grandpa and even people my age, the majority of us are really bad searchers. What I mean by that is that most of us have a hard time finding what we are looking for when using a search engine. That may be one reason the auto-complete search results are useful to Googlers as it makes it easier to find something, even when that something is only a loose match to what the searcher really has envisioned in their mind. I believe Google Instant encourages this trend of broad searching and broad selecting that really limits the results a Googler could otherwise enjoy when searching.
Why is this bad for Albany? The same reason it is bad for any local business optimizing for customers on the internet. The big players who can afford campaigns to appear highest on Google results for the broadest search terms – like “bicycle shop” – will be more likely to be selected (and selected faster) than the Mom and Pop places who optimize for “bicycle shop in Albany”. The effect of this bias isn’t as apparent with my example of bicycle shops, but for search terms like “lawyers”, it becomes more obvious. Not only is this bad for local businesses in Albany and other towns, but it is also a disservice to the searcher as it homogenizes search results even further. In fact, that is probably my chief complain of Google Instant. What saves the day here is Google’s ability to display some search, map, and auto-complete results according to your IP address, and therefore, your geographic location. Otherwise the average searcher would be seeing a lot more national brands and results coming from bigger cities far, far away.
And while Google Instant is helping out the slow typers which probably constitute the majority of searchers, it is aggravating those capable of faster words per minute. When you know exactly what you want to search for and would rather type out an entire phrase and hit “enter” and are capable of doing it within a second or so, Google Instant will only get in your way. Results on the fly can’t load fast enough and a fast typer will find themselves aggravated at not seeing the terms they type right away as the Instant script struggles to catch up. But again, there is always the option to just turn Instant off.
If this review seems overly negative I apologize, because I don’t mean for it to be. It just seems to be a big waste to have developed something like this when Google and the way search engines function in general still need so much more improvement. I’m also irritated that with Instant on, the faster, more seasoned searcher will now take a little longer to find what they want because of the slower page loading and results trying to display on-the-fly. I am a little upset that Instant seems to homogenize results even further, and makes Google act more like a directory of search terms, instead of displaying results for searches created organically. I’m still not sure what it means exactly for advertisers as an ad impression will now be counted every time it is displayed in Instant’s on-the-fly results. Maybe Google will be able to claim a higher ad impression rate as they further develop their lucrative Adwords and Adsense programs.
What I do think it means for webmasters and businesses in Albany is that they should pay attention to this subtle change. My advice would be to focus a little more on optimizing for the popular search terms that Google auto-complete provides instead of the search terms you think up since Googlers will supposedly be choosing these faster and more frequently.