Google unveiled a nifty new way to search their index yesterday. It's called "Google Instant" and it automatically populates the page with the search results as you type. So, for instance, when I type "life" the search results for "lifetime" are instantly shown. When I then type a space and an "i" ("life i") those results are replaced with the results for "life insurance" and so on. There's no need to hit the "enter" key.
I read an article in PC World that made the postulation that "SEO could rely on letter rankings rather than word rankings in the near future." I've even read wild theories that Google Instant "will kill SEO" because no two users see the same suggestions as they type.
So does Google Instant change the SEO game? I say no, at least not in its current form.
Do you need to optimize for letters instead of words now?
Let's first debunk the "letter ranking" myth. SEO will not start to rely on letter rankings, at least not in the current form of Google Instant, because Instant populates the search results for the most popular keywords in the suggested terms drop-down -- not for the fragment of keywords the user has typed.
That is, when you type "life i", since "life insurance" is the most popular suggested phrase that matches "life i" it shows the results for the full phrase "life insurance." Google does not populate the search results with what's best optimized for the fragment "life i."
So you don't have to run out and optimize your site for "life i" in an effort to have your site show up first when a user typing "life i" is looking for "life insurance." Google is still showing the results best optimized for "life insurance", not "life i."
Does this mark the death of SEO?
I always roll my eyes when I read another article claiming that some change marks the end of search engine optimization. This situation is no different.
The claim some are making is this: Google personalizes the suggestions that appear in the drop-down box as you type keywords into the search engine, so no two users will see the same results. That is, if I type "Mexican rest" Google Instant automatically shows me the results for "Mexican restaurants Dallas" since I live in the Dallas metro. But somebody in Seattle would see a different set of results. So the crowd who thinks the SEO sky is falling is saying that the phrase "Mexican restaurant" won't have as much value anymore because Google Instant prevents people from ever seeing the results that are best optimized for that phrase without the location on the end.
A nice thought, but wrong. Google was geo-targeting results for local phrases long before Google Instant was released. Even before Google Instant automatically populated the results for Mexican restaurants in Dallas, I would see almost those same results if I just searched for "Mexican restaurants" alone. So not much has changed there. Webmasters have had to adapt to Google's geo-locating their results for a few years now.
The second part of the "death" claim is that the feedback given by Google as you type will change what people search for. They reason that because Google is instantly showing search results as you type, people will stop typing before they ever get to the long tail keywords you've optimized for.
Wrong again. For instance, let's say I want to sell my used car, so I start typing "used car values" to see what it's worth. When I get to "used car" Google shows web sites selling used cars. Why would I stop typing there? It's not showing what I want. On the other hand, if I continue and type "used car v" -- I get results for "used car values." So the web sites optimized for "used car values" are still going to get my visit! I'm not going to stop on results that aren't what I'm after just because Google automatically pops them onto the screen.
While it's true that some searches might be affected by that (e.g. the #2 result for "chicken soup" is for a chicken soup recipe, so if I was going to type "chicken soup recipe" I might stop at "chicken soup"), that hardly signals the "death" of SEO. It just means that webmasters will need to do their research to find out if they need to optimize for a different (or additional) set of keywords.
What Google Instant Might Mean For SEO
One thing that the release of Google Instant might mean for those of us optimizing our sites is that the suggested keywords are going to get more traffic than they did before. Since Google auto-populates the results based on the most popular keyword suggestions, people are going to be shown those results instantly and may decide to go with one of the phrases in the drop down instead of continuing to type out the query they had in mind before. This has been happening since Google first introduced the suggestions in the drop-down, but Instant may magnify that somewhat.
So it would be wise to research the keywords your site is currently ranking for to see if they pop up in the keyword suggestions list as you type. If not, you may want to do some additional optimizing for some of the keywords that do appear in the list.
What Do I Think Of Google Instant?
In case you care, I think Google Instant is pretty cool. It certainly does save some typing time, and it's fast enough that it doesn't slow me down even though I type 130+ words a minute. Once it reaches mobile devices it'll be great since typing is much slower on most mobiles.
But as far as SEO goes, not much is going to change based on this version of Instant. Google's Keyword tools will start to reflect the new search volumes keywords are getting due to the change over to Instant, and webmasters will optimize for those keywords as they always have.
If Google decides to modify the way Instant works things may be different -- but who could predict all of the changes that have occurred over the last few years that webmasters have had to adapt to? There's no sense in trying to second guess the industry. All webmasters can do is what they've always done -- adapt as it happens.
For now, however, the SEO sky is certainly not falling.
Please post your thoughts and questions in a comment below.