Search News: Is Google Playing Head Games with Instant Search?


We like things fast in America – oatmeal, coffee, post-game analysis, and now search results. But does instant make any of those things better? When it comes to Google’s Instant Search product, it may depend on what side of the click you are on.

With Instant Search as users type in their search queries from Google’s homepage, they instantly begin seeing results from the very first letter. As they continue to type their query, the page shifts to bring up results based on what’s been typed so far along with Google’s other algorithmic tricks based on location and user behavior. Paid ads follow suit, leading to many more impressions.

As Techcrunch points out, the total number of results that a user sees has now exploded, rendering the idea of “first page” antiquated. Like roulette, it’s all about where the (eye) ball stops. This may have a profound effect on both Paid Search and SEO.


For SEO this means optimizing for partial words and phrases becomes a key tactic for Google results. This is compounded by the possibility that Google’s Suggest feature, which gives you longer tail search terms as suggestions to help complete your query, might become more useful when faced with ever-shifting results.

This also underscores the importance of site architecture – if a user can find what they are looking for within the organic result without having to type further, they are more likely to stop typing the query and jump to your site. Let’s say you are Sears. A user looking to buy new tires from Sears might start their query with the word “Sears” which should bring the organic listing for Sears up. If Google can read the site properly it can display destinations such as “Auto” or “Tires” on the sitemap below the main listing, giving users a reason to click without finishing the query.

For non brand terms, certain brands are going to have a big advantage. Think Toys ‘R’ Us, or Autotrader. Simply typing in the first part of either name may be enough to bring in a relevant result ahead of a competitor. This also has major ramifications for paid search.Google Instant auto

Paid Search

These same brands may want to alter their negative match strategy to prevent ads showing up on generic terms like “Toys.” If the user doesn’t click on the ad it can impact click through rate (CTR), a major factor in Google’s quality score algorithm. That can have a serious effect on cost per click.

This is a big, big deal.

Google acknowledges that Instant Search will drive overall impressions up, so to mitigate this they are altering what constitutes an impression for the purposes of more “accurately” measuring CTR.  Here is what Google has told us will count as an impression for these purposes:

  • The user begins to type a query on Google and clicks anywhere on the page (a search result, an ad, a spell correction, a related search).
  • The user chooses a particular query by clicking the Search button, pressing Enter, or selecting one of the predicted queries.
  • The user stops typing, and the results are displayed for a minimum of three seconds

Whoa, now. What was that last one again?

The three second pause is how Google intends to distinguish between a user who has found that what they see is irrelevant and thus merits a lower CTR, and a user who has instantly found satisfaction. Whether or not this accurately reflects real user behavior (we think it doesn’t) we are fairly certain that in many cases the impact on CTR will be negative which means advertiser’s costs go up. And Google makes more money.

What can also drive costs up is the desire by advertisers to get that click before people have gotten too far into their query, especially if you have a competitor out there. In theory more people will be clicking, or at least pausing for three seconds, before completing what might have been a longer tail query.

To capture the potential earlier click you might need to buy head terms. For instance, the CPC for the term “birth control pill” is $1.98. For just “Birth Control” the price goes up to a whopping $9.00. And Google makes more money. Sensing a pattern here?

Don’t get me wrong – to paraphrase Sally Struthers we all want to make more money. I don’t begrudge Google making profits and fattening their margins.

I do wonder whether this really alters the user experience in a positive way, or simply presents more options that in all likelihood are actually less relevant to the user. This is a complete reversal of Google’s emphasis on the user’s ability to find what they need with a minimum of fuss. Instead we have an ever-shifting pattern of clickable items that, for the ADD user, can lead to a rabbit hole far away from their original intent.

So is Instant Search a clever tool designed to increase spending on pricy head terms? A wedge to part advertisers from more of their money by driving down CTR’s? A way to help users formulate their queries more rapidly?

The only way we will know for sure is by looking very carefully at the real world results in both our Paid Search and SEO campaigns and doing rigorous testing and experimenting to make sure that campaigns are as efficient as possible.

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