Keeping a Watchful Eye on Google Instant Search

On Wednesday, Google launched its new Instant Search feature to the masses, and it didn’t take long for Web consultants, tech pundits, and the unfortunately named blogosphere to erupt.  Business and tech analysts have already hailed Instant Search as a potential “game changer”, and average users are beaming about Instant Searches’ increased speed and ease-of-use.  But for SEO consultants who make it their business to know the ins-and-outs of Google’s search results page, Instant Search has the potential to throw a medium-sized wrench into the works by redefining the way we perceive search and day-to-day user behavior.

At its core, Instant Search is designed to help streamline the process that we traditionally associate with queries and search engine usability; go to a search engine, enter a term, click “search”, scroll through the results, and repeat.   Instant Search essentially cuts out the last three steps, by implementing a set of new features that speak more to search as an adaptable experience, centered on the user, than one centered on just the perceived health and competitiveness of a site.

What do I mean by this?

For one, Google search is now, well, “instant”.  The moment you begin to type a query, Google will immediately load a set of search results that speak to the keywords that you’re using.  Expand or revise the search terms and Google will keep pace by delivering relevant organic and Adwords results on the fly.  I’ll be the first to admit that this is a fantastic feature, and it allows anyone with a pulse to perform faster searches for everything but the most esoteric of keyword combinations.

But the problem lies in the seemingly innocuous integration of Google’s new predictive algorithm.  Whereas previously Google would only present a drop-down list of suggested queries based on what you typed into the search field, these suggestions are now shown inside of the search field as grayed-out text.

Google Instant Search

And this is the kicker.

Because, while I was never too thrilled with the original implementation of the drop-down predictions, they never had any measurable, widespread impact on search engine optimization efforts or search volume numbers. But by presenting the predictions in-line with the rest of the search query and having it run in tandem with Instant Search results, we’re now faced with the very real possibility that more users will rely on the immediate predictive feedback that Google provides.

If Google’s prediction scheme auto-fills a small sample of potential (and obvious) search terms for its users, and people adjust their search behavior to fit these suggestions, then this has some pretty far-reaching implications.  Will the pool of competitive keywords begin to slowly evaporate?  Will sites that compete on more general keywords be facing more competition down the line?  What about niche sites that target their content to a very specific audience? How will this affect sites that have historically relied on those Google users that dig through the long tail of search results? These are all things to take into consideration as time goes on and as the data starts to roll in.

Google Instant Search isn’t, as some of my peers believe, an impassable barrier when it comes to SEO; it’s just another layer to take into consideration when optimizing a site.  If this does cause an evolution in search behavior, then the onus is on us as consultants to glean as many insights as possible for the benefit of our clients.  We’re already waiting for the dust to settle, we’ll see what comes of it.