Google Instant isn't going to end the universe

Ian Lurie

Here’s the thing about Google Instant: It doesn’t change search as much as you might think. I’m not ignoring the fact that it’s a big innovation. The speed required to make Instant work is mind-boggling. Somewhere in the world lights flicker every time you do an Instant search.

But it’s not going to cause SEO’s to spontaneously combust. Nor is it going to be one last nail in Bing’s coffin – Microsoft will have to do that themselves.

Why people think Google Instant will bring the End Times

I know a lot of people are suggesting that Google Instant may kill the long tail and take SEO with it.

If you’re new to search, the ‘long tail’ are all of those phrases of 3+ words that drive highly-targeted, low-volume traffic to your site. The long tail is a huge chunk of search. Over 60% of all searches performed on Google are long tail.

The theory: If someone starts to type in a long-tail search, but Google Instant shows them a good, click-worthy result after they type in a word or two, then the customer will stop there. So, if you rank for the long-tail phrase but not the shorter ‘head’ phrase, they’ll never find you.

For example, say I’m looking for cheap tickets to Hawaii. I start to type in ‘Hawaii airfare deals’, but by the time I’ve typed in ‘Hawaii air’ I’ve got some promising results:

google instant header search

I stop typing, so I never see the results for ‘Hawaii airfare deals’:

google instant longtail

So the folks that rank top 3 for ‘Hawaii airfare deals’ don’t get the traffic they once did.

End of Days.

Or not. Here are all the reasons I don’t think Google Instant’s going to have that much of an impact on organic SEO, or the way we generally search:

Nope. Google Instant won’t kill the long tail

Most people in English-speaking (see correction below from Matteo) Western cultures create search queries by putting together a modifier – like ‘discount’ – and a focal product or topic – like ‘hawaii airfare’.

The scenario I described above requires that the user type in the focal product or topic – the destination – first. If they type ‘airfare to hawaii’ or ‘discount airfare to hawaii’, Instant doesn’t help. That’s because ‘discount airfare’ doesn’t include a destination. The condition alone – ‘discount airfare’ – isn’t enough information to generate a useful result.

Turns out, most people in Western cultures also put the modifiers first, not last.

How often do you type ‘bike tires flat proof’? You don’t. You type ‘flat proof bike tires’.

Or you type ‘cheap airfares hawaii’ (according to Google’s keyword tool).

Unless we all start typing the focal product/topic first in our queries, and tacking on the adjectives or other modifiers after it, Google Instant isn’t going to change our search habits that much.

There are more reasons Instant isn’t Instant Death for SEO and traditional search:

Google Instant only shows if you’re signed in

Unless you’re signed into Google, you don’t get Instant. I have no idea how many people use Google Accounts when searching. But I bet it’s somewhere between ‘not very many’ and ‘a smidge’.

That means that a whole lot of people will continue seeing the same personalized results (remember when personalized search was the End Of All Things?).

Google Instant only shows on Google

If you do a search using your browser’s search box, or typing a search from the address bar in a browser like Chrome, you won’t get Instant results. You’ll still get the same results you always have.

There’s no change to the Google Algorithm

As Matt McGee pointed out on Search Engine Land, Google hasn’t changed their algorithm. They still rank stuff the way they did a week ago.

What Google Instant might do: Hurt Adwords revenue

You know what Google Instant might affect? Adwords. Someone will need to do an eye-tracking study to test this, but:

If I start typing a search query, and then Google Instant displays results, I find my eye is drawn directly down to the organic results. I don’t even glance over at the Adwords results. If there happen to be Adwords results right under the search box, those ads could get a lot of clicks:

google instant 3box

But the ads on the right? Forget it. That could discourage a lot of Adwords advertisers.

And that’s something the Guardian got right: If Google Instant hurts Adwords revenue, Google will shut it down so fast Google Wave’s brief time on Earth will seem like an eternity.

Jury’s out

Google Instant’s only been around a couple of days. So we’re all reading tea leaves, at this point. But you can make a strong case that Instant is more cosmetic than functional, and that maybe this is the 50th time the media has incorrectly called a new Google feature a ‘game changer’ or an ‘SEO killer’. Grab your grain of salt, and keep your eye on your traffic reports.

Ian Lurie

Ian Lurie is the founder of Portent. He's been a digital marketer since the days of AOL and Compuserve (that's more than 25 years, if you're counting). Ian's recorded training for, writes regularly for the Portent Blog and has been published on AllThingsD, Smashing Magazine, and TechCrunch. Ian speaks at conferences around the world, including SearchLove, MozCon, Seattle Interactive Conference and ad:Tech. He has published several books about business and marketing: One Trick Ponies Get Shot, available on Kindle, The Web Marketing All-In-One Desk Reference for Dummies, and Conversation Marketing. Ian is now an independent consultant and continues to work with the Portent team, training the agency group on all things digital. You can find him at

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  1. When you say
    “Most people in Western cultures create search queries by putting together a modifier – like ‘discount’ – and a focal product or topic – like ‘hawaii airfare’.
    The scenario I described above requires that the user type in the focal product or topic – the destination – first. If they type ‘airfare to hawaii’ or ‘discount airfare to hawaii’, Instant doesn’t help.”
    you assume “most people in western cultures” speak English, or a language with the same phrase structure…
    e.g., in Italian, modifiers are most often at the end of the phrase: “Biglietti aerei in sconto”.

  2. Ian, I’m trying to remember where I read about an eye-testing of the new Instant results. I believe it was someone commenting on the launch, mentioning that Google showed an eye testing that matched your prediction.
    I could be way off base though; I haven’t actually seen the presentation.
    The thing I think is funny is that we work in one of the most data-driven industries and all I hear is a lot of empty speculation and ‘the end is nigh’. Thanks for writing with some much-needed clear-headedness on the subject!

  3. Ian, I actually said the reverse about Adwords on Mike Blumenthal’s blog a couple days ago, but came to the same conclusion you did — the ads below the search suggest IMMEDIATELY drew my attention. I think the top three PPC spots just got much more important, perhaps (artificially?) increasing the value of that screen real estate.

  4. It looks like Google Instant works whether signed in or not. There is an option to turn it off to the right of the search box. Otherwise, thanks for the insight!

  5. There are at least two groups that will not be influenced by Google Instant. Those, who type a phrase in Google without ever lifting their eyes from the keyboard, while others type a phrase in light-speed, not bothered to check the suggestions 😉

  6. I like your viewpoint on Google Instant as you have explained about the order of the keywords modifier which does make a huge difference. Correct me if you think I am wrong here though.
    I think people were talking about the really long tail and not so much a three or four keyword search phrase. This seems like it would be an even bigger impact on less savvy computer users who are typing really long tails. Those people are the cream of the crop when it comes to profiting from organic traffic. (My opinion). So, anything that might encourage them to stop typing with their two finger hunt and peck method is probably going to impact the volume of keyword searches (from these people) going to the really long tail.
    I think that is what certain internet marketers are really worried about. Don’t you think the (more than four keywords) non-savvy computer users are less likely to type out their whole search phrase now?

  7. Im thinking that its a lot of panick over nothing really. I mean that there are many internet techniques and methods that lumber on for years after other technologies superceed them.
    So even if Google instant is something that is set to replace the traditional SEO method of getting results where people can see them, it might well take a few years to happen.
    This would give all of us that have invested time and money in our SEO efforts enough of a chance to develop new tricks.

  8. Actually, the need to log into a Google account is only for the countries where Google Instant hasn’t fully rolled out yet. Here in the US Instant is “live” and will appear whether the searcher is logged in or not.

  9. I like Google Instant. Didn’t think I would, but one session back searching from my Google tool bar confirmed it. I do feel the impact will be a positive one for the top few Adwords advertisers. Everybody should just relax and pay attention to this and the next 872 changes Google makes that affect us.

  10. Your post and my previous comment got me thinking. Never mind the clever quips about my thinking again. What will Instant do to impressions? The Adwords blog had this to say:
    “As a result, Google Instant changes the way we think about impressions. With Google Instant, an impression is counted if a user takes an action to choose a query (for example, presses the Enter key or clicks the Search button), clicks a link on the results page, or stops typing for three or more seconds.”
    That’s a pretty broad definition of an impression. Impressions likely will go up (and CTR down).
    Thanks again for the post!

  11. Great post, the idea that Google Instant will kill SEO is idiotic:
    SEO (simply speaking) relies on keyword research to target phrases that are relevant to the clients website.
    PPC (and therefore Google itself) relies on keyword research to target phrases that are relevant to the clients website.

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