I have always heard that Google is ruthless in their testing and use of data to make decisions, so I have every reason to believe that they know what they are doing. However, their new Google Instant is something which is a new animal all together.
Steve Rubel posted today that he thinks that SEO as we know it is dead. His reasoning is based on the notion that because of the prompted feedback, all of the web will look different for everyone. The process of prompting these searches will in fact cause a massive balkanization in search queries, which blows up traditional SEO strategies.
I’m not sure I agree with this. Because Google is curating the suggested search terms, presumably based on likely terms gleaned from use data, there is a discoverable path for search terms. Clever SEO marketers can figure out these terms and optimize for them.
Further compounding this problem is that searchers are no longer committed to many search queries. Before Google Instant, a searcher was promoted with likely terms, but they still had to click the “Search” button to get the results. At that point, they were committed to the results page, and would likely consider all links, and, more importantly, ads on that page. If they didn’t find what they were looking for, they would click the back arrow, and conduct a new search. With Instant, the results change in real time. So do the ads.
Let me say that again. The ads change in real time. What. The. Hell. The way that Google worked before was that they optimized inventory for revenue attainment. It didn’t matter if you were willing to pay a $100 CPC. If your ad didn’t perform, it was removed in favor of those which garnered more clicks per impression. So the first question, what now counts as an impression? If the ads are changing in real time, isn’t Google now creating two types of ads?
A PRIME ad would be that which is at the end of a search query chain. An ALT ad would be one that may only appear for a millisecond as the search query is being typed? Is it possible a searcher considers those ads? Do they get completely ignored, and are thus worthless?
UPDATE: From Google, there are several things which will cause an impression event to fire. Selecting anything on the page, which makes sense. But stopping typing for 3 seconds also causes an “impression” event to fire. Interesting.
Allow me to demonstrate with an example. Here’s a query I started.
As you can see, there are no ads displayed. Simply adding a space (i.e. “Specialized “ vs. “Specialized”) generates ad impressions.
Strangely, the ad inventory doesn’t change as I type the word “bikes.’”
So they are certainly optimizing the ad inventory based on the likely pathing through the search query tree. You can see that if you type “allez” instead of “bikes” that the ads do change.
Again, back to “bikes” as the root search. If you add a space to it (“Specialized bikes “), the ads shown are those associated with the next term “Seattle.” So Google is trying to at least show you ads based on where they think you are going.
So what Rubel suggests is partially true. Search becomes a unique experience – making it hard to exploit by the SEO marketers. The inclusion of “Seattle” as the likely next term for me is probably based on the fact that I live in Seattle, have an IP address in Seattle, and likely have done many searches with Seattle in them.
Will SEO marketers be able to figure out the suggestion tree in a programmatic or general way? It seem that with this new model of Google Instant, the generalized search terms are no longer important, but rather it’s the leaf nodes on the Google suggested search term tree (long tail) which become infinitely more important. Suggested search terms with the immediate feedback of a changed SERP will likely cause general keywords to plummet in value.
What does this mean for Google’s revenues? Did they in fact just dramatically reduce the number of searches, thus impacting their revenue opportunities? Will clever marketers be able to discern the likely pathing through Google’s suggested query terms, and bid up the PRIME ad inventory, offsetting any lost revenue due to reduced searches? What is the value of ALT inventory versus PRIME inventory? Will searchers note the change in ads and consider them in turn, meaning that any bidding up is a short term phenomena, causing a temporal spike in revenues?
Again, I assume Google has tested this and thought through the issues. The challenge, however, is that with any large scale system which influences, and is influenced by, human behavior, the results often differ from the expectations.