Election season is typically awash in name-calling and one-upsmanship. This year, however, the CRM industry—and search engine optimization (SEO) in particular—saw some mudslinging of an unusual variety, thanks to the release of Google Instant and its real-time, as-you-type results. The hoopla began on September 8—Instant’s launch date—when Steve Rubel, senior vice president and director of insights for public relations firm Edelman Digital, penned a blogpost that he titled “Google Instant Makes SEO Irrelevant.”
The premise of Rubel’s piece—and what caused an industrywide conniption—was that Instant’s new search enhancement, updating results with each user keystroke, means that no two people view the Web the same way, thus making SEO virtually impossible. Was he right? Would search marketers join the ranks of the unemployed?
The answer hinges on a clear understanding of what Google Instant does—and doesn’t—do. According to Google, the average person spends 300 milliseconds between keystrokes, but only 30 milliseconds to glance at another part of a Web page. Google Instant is meant to capitalize on this lag time, enabling searchers to scan a results page while still typing.
Take, for example, a Google.com user searching for “social CRM.” After the first keystroke, Instant shows results for office-supply giant Staples. When the “o” is entered, the page refreshes, producing results topped by Southwest Airlines. Results for “social CRM,” by the way, don’t begin to appear until the user has typed “social CR.”
Some critics contend that premature results may distract searchers—actually lengthening search time (the opposite of Google’s intention)—or draw them away from products they intended to browse.
Hadley Reynolds, director of search and digital marketplace technologies at research firm IDC, argues that the dynamic drop-down suggestions and the high-speed, shifting results are sure to have an effect on search technique, and may even prove daunting to some users. Each letter they type, after all, will drive new suggested search terms and continually updated results. “They may be examining the search results themselves after just one or two keystrokes,” Reynolds says. “There’s a lot to look at because the system is responding so quickly.”
Craig Danuloff, president of pay-per-click software provider Click Equations, predicts two possible changes in search methodology. “[The results] may or may not distract you,” Danuloff says. “The results could be something you weren’t looking for at all that you click on [anyway], or the results could be something close to what you were going to search for and you cut your search short and accept a ‘good enough’ result.”
Some analysts suggest that all this talk of user confusion may be much ado about nothing. “The announcement that SEO is dead…is overblown and hysterical,” Reynolds says. “The ways in which searchers around the world literally adjust to this new mode of operation is going be the lasting impact from this change. There will be an adjustment but it’s not going be earth-shaking.”
Barry Schwartz, CEO of software company RustyBrick, says he’s equally unconcerned about SEO’s survival. Instant, he argues, will actually help users more easily find what they’re searching for if they’re initially unsure. “If you read a book but you only remember half the title, Google will complete the search and tell you what you’re looking for,” he says, adding that search marketers should be focused on and targeting likely buyers rather than the general search public. “If somebody is distracted [by Google Instant], they’re probably not too eager to buy from your Web site anyway.”
And what about users who pretty much know what they’re looking for? Will they settle for “good enough”? Will they be quick to buy a completely different product just because Instant showed it to them one keystroke earlier than the intended result? Not a chance, Danuloff claims.
“All I have to do is type a couple of letters,” Danuloff says. “It isn’t a huge barrier for me to refine my search by typing some more. If somebody brings something to your house that you didn’t want and you have to get in your car and drive someplace else to get what you actually wanted—now that’s a huge barrier.”
Many of those who read Rubel’s original blogpost were equally skeptical, with hostile comments developing into ad hominem attacks: “Steve don’t try to have an opinion on everything…this article is a total fail,” one commenter wrote. “Edelman isn’t paying you to putz around,” wrote another. “Get back to work!”
Rubel eventually commented on his own post, backtracking from his hard-line stance. “It’s possible that this was a knee-jerk view and I will be proven very wrong in the future,” he wrote. “It’s also possible I will be right in the future—or somewhere in between. That’s the great thing about blogging. You can put ideas out there and see what happens.”
Rubel’s use of the phrase “see what happens” in this context turned out to be a bit prophetic. Weeks after the launch of Instant, Google introduced Instant Previews, offering users a pop-up image of each search result’s landing page. The added feature sparked concerns that content-based SEO might now require design-oriented preview optimization as well, with Web-site owners forced to allocate scarce resources to major redesigns.
Ironically, just about the only thing definitively not instantaneous about Google Instant is a full understanding of its impact. The true results may not be the ones that popped right away.