Google Instant - Analytics Will Tell All

"Google Instant" was announced with fanfare at a fancy press conference in San Francisco - at the Museum of Modern Art.
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Aaron Wall is a smart guy.  Regarding Google Instant, he said:

"Google also promotes sending users on a
guided path with their Google Instant, which
tries to complete your search query for you."
- Aaron Wall, SEOBook
The "guided path" Aaron is talking about refers to the suggested queries you see as you type your query into Google.  With the introduction of Google Instant, these suggested queries become more important.  As people search using queries that are relevant to your site, it's crucial to know what other queries Google is suggesting.

If someone starts to type a query that's important to you, what other queries Google is suggesting?  These are the "guided path" Aaron is talking about.

Some people think Google Instant changed the way Google ranks pages in the search results.  Actually, Google Instant is merely a change to Google's user interface.  

It's good to know:
  1. What's the Change?
  2. What Opportunities Does It Present for Website Owners?

1.  Google Instant: What's the Change?

A couple of years ago, Google's user interface changed.  As users typed a search query, a drop down list started appearing.  The list contained suggested search queries.  Not surprisingly, people started finding things they liked in the list.  People started running the queries they saw in the Google Suggest drop down list.

This feature is similar to what happens when you look at a book on Amazon and they show you other books that might be of interest.  Amazon is simply letting you know that people who bought this book also bought these other books, so you might be interested in them too.

Google's suggested queries work the same way.  Look what happens when I type "ice c" into Google:

Google says, people who type "ice c" often end up searching for ice cream, ice cube, ice cream recipes, and - who would have guessed? - ice cream paint job.

When queries appear in the list of suggestions, Google is shining a spotlight on them.  As a result, lots of people will pick one and use it to search.

Now, Google Instant adds a little something.

  • As you type your query, Google "instantly" displays search results for the top suggested search phrase.
  • You can "instantly" see search results for the other suggested queries, too, by using the down arrow to scroll through them.

That's it!  Despite a 90 minute press conference, where Google presented "Google Instant" as if it was almost a miraculous feature that could practically read your mind, it's really just a clever enhancement to Google's user interface.

Google's computer programmers deserve a compliment, because it's cool that they can suggest search phrases that people sometimes like, and it's pretty amazing how quickly Google can process your search request and get those results back to you.  Yet these things were already part of Google before "Google Instant" came along.

It remains to be seen whether people will like Google Instant.

  • It's slightly disorienting to see search results flashing up on the screen, changing each time you type a new character into the search box, so that may put off some people.
  • The real trick of Google Instant is that you can use the down arrow key to scroll through the list of suggested queries and check out the search results for each one.  It will take a while for people to learn that you can do this.
  • Ultimately, people might love these new features.  Google has tested the new interface and they say people like it.

2.  Google Instant:  What it Means for Website Owners

At this point it's important to be very specific.  There's been a lot of wild speculation about what Google Instant means for website owners.  Will it change SEO?  Will it make SEO obsolete?  Will it cause people to enter fewer long queries?

Well, forget all that.  There's one specific thing website owners need to take into account regarding Google Instant, and we have to be precise in identifying it.  Google Instant means you should focus a little more time on a specific activity:  Keyword Discovery.  Specifically, Google Instant means that users will pay more attention to Google's query suggestions, and they will use those queries more often, so it's become increasingly important that you use the drop down list of suggested queries to discover new queries that are relevant to your website.

If you want to know how important it is for you to do this, consider the plight of a website owner who recently lost 5,000 website visitors a day.

Oh no!  We just lost 5,000 visitors a day!

Here's what happened:  Lots of people were searching for a common two word search phrase.  As they finished typing the second word, Google Suggest showed a list of suggested queries in the drop down search box.  The first suggestion was a three word search query and lots of people liked it.  They picked that suggestion, and the website that ranked #1 for it got a lot of clicks and visitors.

Then one day, Google's algorithms removed that three word query from the list of suggestions.  As a result, the number of people searching for that phrase dropped, and the website that used to get lots of visitors from people searching for that phrase suddenly experienced a large drop in traffic.  They lost about 5,000 visitors a day.

If a search query appears in the list of suggestions, the website that ranks #1 for that query will get a lot of visitors.

That's why we have to focus - precisely - on Keyword Discovery.  You might be able to rank #1 for some of those search queries that Google suggests, but realistically, that's likely to happen only if you are aware of that query and have a page on your site that's relevant to that query.

Specifically, it's important to:
  1. Type search phrases you already know about into the Google search box
  2. Look at the list of suggested search phrases, and
  3. See if you discover any new ones that are relevant to your business.
This is one way of doing Keyword Discovery.

Once you discover new search phrases, you can continue your Keyword Research:
  • Discover many new search phrases
  • Research each search phrase
    • How many searches a month?
    • How much competition to rank high?
    • How likely to bring visitors who will become customers?
Then you can implement your strategy:
  • If the search phrase looks good
    • Make a page about that subject
    • Make sure the search phrase appears in the HTML title tag of the page, and a couple of other places too, so it's easy for Google to figure out what the page is about
    • Place amazingly great content on the page - content that's exactly what searchers want to see
    • Promote your fantastic page to others so they talk about it and link to it, because when Google sees that quality websites are linking to you they are more likely to place you high in the search results
  • The catch is, you can't research a search phrase and do all the rest if you never know about that search phrase in the first place.  You'll never discover every possible variation of search phrases people might use to try to find your site, but you better not miss ones that are listed in Google's suggested queries!
Ever since Google started suggesting search phrases in a drop down list, it's been important to check them out.  Now, because Google Instant will cause even more people to search using the phrases Google suggests, it's become even more import to know what queries Google suggests and optimize for them.  That's it!  As a website owner, this is what you need to know about Google Instant.  You must explore Google's suggestions.  You can't afford to miss a search phrase that Google is suggesting to users.

Want to get really good? using Google's suggestions to discover new search phrases?  Here's an article that presents clever tips and techniques you can use.  How to Actually Use the Google Suggest Feature for Keyword Research and Beyond.

Want to get an idea of how important this is? reading about the site that lost 5,000 visitors a day when a search phrase was dropped from the list of Google's suggestions?  Here you go:  Keyword Research with Google Suggest Could Add 5,000 Visitors a Day!

Regarding Google Analytics:  With Google Instant, people start seeing search results after typing just one character.  The search results they see are based on the most likely completion of their query.  In Google Analytics, it's the most likely completion of the query that shows up in the list of search queries that brought the visitor to your site.  Even if the user just typed a few characters, what will show up in Google Analytics as their search phrase is the most likely completion of the query - even if they never finished typing it - because that's the query Google is using to show "Instant" results.

If you want to see the partial search queries, i.e., you want to see exactly what the users type, there's a way to do that.  You can make a new profile in Google Analytics and set it up to display only what the user typed, as opposed to the most likely completion that Google used to return search queries.  You can find out how to do that here: How to Track Google Instant in Google Analytics.

The ability to see partial search queries in Google Analytics raises the question:  What would you do with this information?  One thing you might do is type those partial search queries into Google yourself, and see what new search phrases you discover.  You might think of other uses for this data, too.  Since you can't do anything with the data unless you have it, and since it's pretty simple to set up a new profile in Google Analytics and start tracking partial search queries, it's probably a good idea to do that now and start accumulating data in a new profile so you have the option of using it later.

Managing Expectations During the Transition

If Google Instant focuses more attention on Google's suggested queries, traffic patterns to your website may change.  People who formerly used certain search queries may increasingly switch to search queries suggested by Google.
  • If people switch away from queries you rank well for, you might experience a drop in traffic.
  • If people switch toward queries you rank well for, you might experience an increase in traffic.
Either way, this will happen on a query by query basis.  You detect these changes by comparing visitor counts for search phrases over two time periods - BGI (Before Google Instant) and AGI (After Google Instant).

Case #1:  If you see a dramatic fall in traffic for a given search phrase, try typing it into Google, character by character, and see if you see any appealing suggested search phrases that might be attracting people away from the phrase you used to get traffic for.  Research these phrases and consider making new web pages that are optimized for the phrases that might be attracting visitors.

Case #2:  If you see an increase in traffic for a given search phrase, you have nothing to complain about, but it would be interesting to start typing that phrase into Google and see if it appears in Google's list of suggested queries.  This would explain why more people are searching for that query and visiting you because they see you in the search results.

There's no harm in letting people know that you are monitoring website traffic for changes that might result from Google's new user interface features, and you'll let them know about any actionable insights you find.
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