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Sam Crocker, one of our lead SEOs in London has been researching what proportion of searchers are seeing Google Instant. This has a potentially significant impact on the various research being published on how Instant affects average query length. Here's what he has found:

There has been a great deal written about Google Instant since its release and some very interesting studies about the impact of Instant on search behaviour. These studies have analysed the number of keyphrases of a certain length, the average length of searches, and even gone so far as to point out that the overall impact of Google Instant has been smaller than the impact of the average update to the Google algorithm in terms of search traffic and the length of keywords.

Whilst we can glean some information from this data I want to be very careful to point out that we should not be too hasty. The most important point to make about the referenced studies is: none of these studies claim to have segmented out the data from just Instant traffic. If this is the case, any implications of Instant's impact on search behaviour does not accurately measure the impact of Instant, but rather the observed change on overall traffic driven by search since Instant has been released - and this differentiation is absolutely essential.

When Google updates its algorithm it impacts everyone but usually will not change user behaviour or experience in any drastic way. However, changing the "Google" experience as significantly as Google has done with Instant- has the potential to change the way we search, rather than SEO performance and this is extremely important to bear in mind.

There is a difference between search behaviour and performance of a website in the search engines. Search behaviour refers specifically to the way people search, whereas performance in the search engines refers more generally to how the search engines rank particular sites for a given word.

Looking simply at "before" and "after" Instant results in analytics does not accurately account for the potential impact of a change in the user experience of this magnitude.

We have taken a stab (given the data available to us) at segmenting the data and analyzing the true impact of Instant on searchers behaviour, rather than the broader impact on search volume and changes in analytics data pre/post the introduction of Google Instant. And, as you may have gathered from above, our results look very different than some of the other studies out there.

Our study is by no means perfect science. However, we are hopeful that it will push Google to share a bit more with Analytics users and that others will run these numbers across their own data but the results we did find would certainly indicate that the prediction of many about the increased importance of the long tail may actually still be valid (see Ian Lurie on Read Write Web).

What’s the Difference?
Well, for starters, Google Instant has created a whole lot of buzz for having a fairly negligible impact on the average user. According to some early estimates by Latitude, Google Instant was only expected to be seen by 2.1% of users.

Meanwhile, in a post by Essential Travel, their team looked at a number of users and ran them through a handful of tests. In their tests- relying specifically on users interacting with Instant- they point out that about 85% of their test subjects typed out the full phrase for which they were searching rather than let Instant work its magic. This study was cause for some debate in our own offices as to whether or not a user hitting enter after conducting a search really counted as using Instant at all.

Whilst neither of these posts really “prove” anything, they are indicative of some of the data we, here at Distilled have looked at in our own log files.

After reading some of these posts (particularly the ones that suggested that Instant has had little impact on the length of search queries) I thought it would be interesting to take a look at the log files for our servers. I admit that this data is by no means statistically significant (it’s a small sample size for one website generally tailored towards people who are active in online marketing and thus are fairly savvy), but it certainly is reflective of the fact that the true impact of Instant is probably being grossly underestimated.

Our Evidence & Our Findings
We examined our logfiles for Google referred traffic to our site from early on the morning of September 19 - the evening of September 24. The size of the sample is too small to lead to anything too conclusive (3,094 natural search visits over 5 days), though it was certainly enough to further cement our suspicion that the studies on Instant have thus far underrepresented its impact on search behaviours.

Perhaps the first thing that jumped out at us is the fact that only 5% of our visits could be traced back to Google Instant with any level of confidence. Although we have yet to find any explicit confirmation our analysis suggests that the addition of “sqi=2” and/or “sclient=psy” and our findings are based upon the referrer query string containing one or both of these elements.

I am happy to concede that this is not a statistically significant study, though it echoes some of our original concerns:

  1. We do not yet have the data to see the true impact of Google Instant
  2. We have been measuring the overall impact rather than the specific impact
  3. We have (likely) underestimated the impact of Instant on search behaviour in a serious way
  4. Very few people appear to be using/seeing Google Instant

Every study we have looked at until now has argued strongly that “Instant doesn’t really change anything” which is true when considering the impact of Instant on all search traffic. However, the caveat to having any significance is that Instant continues to be shown only to a small percentage of searchers (which in fairness has been pointed out in some of the other studies we've referenced).

Google Instant may not change much in the way of trends for “all search traffic” though the suggestion that it can tip the scales at all is indicative of the fact that we’re not giving it full credit (have another look at the first graph).

Extrapolating on the data and segmenting by whether the user came to the site by way of Instant we saw:

So what would this mean if everyone were using Instant (i.e. the actual impact of Instant on search behaviour) versus the length of queries of all searches over this period:

  • 2 term keyphrases: 10.3% of searches rather than 14.5%
  • 3 term keyphrases: 18% of searches rather than 22%
  • 4 term keyphrases: 27.5% of searches rather than 23.7%
  • 5 term keyphrases: 12.9% of searches rather than 16%
  • 6 term keyphrases: 10.3% of searches rather than 15.1%
  • 7 term keyphrases: 21% of all searches vs. 8% (almost 3x as many visits)

This lends some traction to the idea that the true impact of Google Instant on searchers behaviour has likely been grossly underestimated. The net effect (at the moment) may be rather small, but the potential impact should Instant ever become the norm is massive. And suggestions that Google Instant has not had any noticeable impact on long-tail search should be challenged as the product is rolled out to a larger audience.

Perhaps the above chart is the most helpful in illustrating the potential impact of Google Instant as compared to the current state (e.g. some users with Google Instant, some coming by way of the toolbar and some by way of "traditional" Google) or the "Percentage all natural" case where no search would be coming by way of Instant.

The comparison of the Red and Blue data points suggest that perhaps there has not been a very big change. This is consistent with these other studies' findings in large part because it discounts for the fact that such a small minority is actually using Google Instant.

The case in green in the above chart is unlikely to ever occur (if for no other reason than the fact that people may always prefer use the toolbar for search and so on), however it is important to illustrate the problems with the conclusion that Instant has not changed anything. The indications from this (admittedly too small) dataset are that Google Instant may yet be a "game changer" in the search marketing community.

What should I do!?

The answer is not to panic, and to keep your eye on this. At the moment, it would appear as though Instant is only impacting a limited number of searchers. We wouldn’t want you to change your approach drastically as a result of this research but we do want to challenge the mantra that “Google Instant hasn’t changed anything”.

We should probably be paying more attention to the uptake of this new product (5% is a shockingly small percentage) much more so than its implications on analytics when so few people are using Instant at present... and we should definitely keep testing. So far the impact may have been fairly negligible but the value of the longtail could very well increase if rollout does.

Google Instant almost certainly has changed search behaviour for those using it- the ultimate unknown is just how many people this is ultimately going to impact and how many people end up using Instant search.

Will Critchlow

Published 8 October, 2010 by Will Critchlow

Will Critchlow is co-founder at Distilled and a contributor to Econsultancy. He can also be found on Twitter, Google + and LinkedIn

4 more posts from this author

Comments (11)

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dan barker

dan barker, E-Business Consultant at Dan Barker

hi, Will, as always - I love the idea of the post & the methodology.
  • The post says the data is based on a pool of 3,094 visits.
  • 3,094 visits total through natural search.
  • 5% came through instant.
  • Meaning this article is based on the behaviour of just 155 'instant' visits.
I'm not sure it's safe to draw anything from that (as you touch on). Perhaps econsultancy would be willing to offer up their data to run the same analysis & draw more definite conclusions? dan

about 6 years ago

Sam Crocker

Sam Crocker, Lead SEO at Distilled, Ltd.

Thank you both for your thoughts!

@Dan - as you point out, one of the huge limitations to the study is the data set, though I am very hopeful that people with access to server logs for much larger sites might run some of this testing over their own sites and let us know what they find!

about 6 years ago

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Gabriele Maidecchi

That's a pretty nice analysis, and I agree, it may be too soon to change anything in SEO market.

However, personally I am using Instant, and I will keep using it. I search mainly from my browser's search tab (Safari), so I am cut out from the *initial* benefit of Instant. But what I find it awesome for is the tuning of my query. Tweaking a word, swapping some other, looking in a fast way at the result. That's the real strength of Instant from my own, very personal experience.

about 6 years ago

Tomasz Tybon

Tomasz Tybon, Sales & Marketing Manager at Dreamcommerce S.A. | www.shoper.pl

It's very useful post Will.

I wonder what about other traffic factors such as: bounce rate, time on site, pages per visit ? If we assume that Google Instant may change the way that users search, maybe it should turn up in engagement factors ?

about 6 years ago

Sam Crocker

Sam Crocker, Lead SEO at Distilled, Ltd.

Hi Tomasz- I agree that it would be a great area to look into. Unfortunately, however, this information is a bit hard to dig up at the moment (as Google isn't making it easy to compare Instant versus regular traffic). Unless we can get some better analytics on these paths it seems a bit discouraging to digging this information from the server logs - though I would be very keen to learn a bit more about this over larger data sets.

Thanks for your comments!

about 6 years ago

Ranvijay  Singh

Ranvijay Singh, CEO & Founder at Vcope India Pvt. Ltd.

Some how its true that for the users who believe to type less has really welcomed Google Instant. As Google instant behavior, it suggest the past search related queries when someone search for the same kind whether its long tailed keywords or short. This would be a challenge for number of SEOs who would be working on past search suggestions of regular Google .

about 6 years ago

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Simon West

There is a major factor in users ability to take advantage of Instant - and that's their ability to touch type!

Think about it... you need to be able to see the screen as you type to really benefit from Instant - and how many users touch type compared to the thousands of two-finger typists that look at the keyboard, not the screen while they peck away :)

Wonder if there are any stats based on ability to touch type...

about 6 years ago

Peter O'Neill

Peter O'Neill, Founder & Lead Consultant at L3 Analytics

Hi Will, I think I have followed most of your logic and analysis here but the interpretation of the numbers feels a little wrong (sorry) although hard to say why exactly without seeing the data. For some potential alternative interpretations of the data... If people who had planned on typing in a long search term are more likely to click on Google Instant (as they save the most time through doing so), would that not appear in your data as a higher proportion of Google Instant users who use 7 term keyphrases? To put that another way, if 50% of searches where 7 terms are going to be used are attributed to Google Instant but only 5% of searches where 2 terms are going to be used, then it would appear as though there is a big skew towards the long tail due to Google Instant. It also appears in your last chart as though there was a big increase in 7 term key phrases from the 95% of non Google Instant visits, not +13.2% but still clearly visible. Were these long key phrases all unique or was there a theme around maybe a particular blog post, currently popular, which might account for this rise in the long tail visits outside of the launch of Google Instant?

about 6 years ago

Sam Crocker

Sam Crocker, Lead SEO at Distilled, Ltd.

Hi Peter- Thanks for your comment (and thanks to the above as well). I like your potential alternative explanation. I fully agree that it is not necessarily only people actually typing more, but could be largely attributable to Google Instant sort of "auto-completing" the query for us - or at least offered it and seen a click. This would (to my understanding) absolutely play into this and may well be a reason to really nail down what the term(s) is/are to go after this autocompleted term and rankings there. Now, as for the final chart it should be 13.2% (or thereabouts) but the labeling may be off. I.e. the shift should be (and again I've not got the original data in front of me) but the graph should be showing a jump from roughly 8% of all searches as opposed to 21% or thereabouts. The labeling of the graph is not quite right but I hope this is a bit clearer. If you have any more questions and want to take a look at some of the data feel free to shoot me an email and I'll see what I can get you. Thanks very much and I can't wait to see some other people take a look at this with their own data when they've got a chance! Best, Sam

about 6 years ago

Peter O'Neill

Peter O'Neill, Founder & Lead Consultant at L3 Analytics

Hi Sam, (sorry for saying Will first time), thanks for the response. I think there are usually multiple ways of interpreting data, not always easy to discover which one is correct. I would usually love to have a look at the raw data but pretty flat out the next week and a half, happy to be involved if you do a follow-up investigation at some stage though. Cheers Peter

about 6 years ago

Naval Kumar

Naval Kumar, Founder & CEO - ABSEM Limited at http://www.absem.com/

I agree sample might be less but we have just launched a Search Marketing News portal (still refining it) but we have noticed an increase in longer tail traffic for sure since the launch of Google Instant. These are mostly queries closer to the article titles or phrases within the article if not exact replicas. We have also seen a significant increase in the number of keywords we rank for within GWT.

almost 6 years ago

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