This week Google unveiled one of their biggest changes to the Google search results page in recent years – an evolution of their Autocomplete feature called Google Instant. In a nutshell, Google Instant predicts what you are searching for, and displays search results for its prediction as you type. Not the results for what you have typed, but the results for what it predicts you are going to type.
All very clever. And a massive time-saver too – reducing search time around the world by a massive 11 hours every second (not per person, in total).
But while this is arguably a change for the better, giving users a greater level of interactivity as they search, the announcement has had some negative reactions from search marketers.
The main concern, as pointed out by John Ellis in his Search Engine Land article, Will Google Instant Kill the Long Tail?, is that by giving users the ability to preview search results as they type, people will be more likely to accept search results for shorter words, and will be less likely to continue searching for highly-specific, long-tail phrases. This will ultimately lead to higher cost per click prices on shorter, generic keywords (as they grow in popularity), and large reductions in the value of long-tail keywords (as they fall in popularity).
Bad news for search marketers.
Because long-tails are incredibly profitable.
Long-tail keywords are those highly-specific phrases such as ‘luxury apartments in Paris for sale’, as opposed to short-tail keywords which are phrases such as ‘apartments for sale’ or ‘Paris apartments’. Due to the highly-specific nature of long-tails, people searching for long-tail phrases are generally more informed about their requirements, have done the majority of their research, are further along in the buying cycle, and are more likely to buy. Search marketers can therefore use long-tail keywords to very accurately provide highly-targeted ads, and expect to deliver a good return as a result.
The stats back up the theory – research I did last year on long-tail keywords found long-tails can be up to 50% cheaper and convert up to 200% better than short-tail keywords. Long-tails are a search marketer’s friend.
So it is no surprise then to see search marketers up in arms when Google announce a change which threatens to reduce the number of people searching for long-tail keywords.
But will it really have such an impact? Although Google’s Autocomplete feature in March 2009 did somewhat change search behaviour away from the long-tail, it largely had an insignificant effect on long-tail paid search strategy, with the long-tail still very much as powerful as before.
Now, as users are presented with instant search results, will people really change the way they search?
I think it depends on two crucial psychological elements: laziness and laziness
Suppose you were interested in buying a luxury apartment in Paris. You start typing your query into Google…
Search results start to appear for Paris weather, Paris transport and Paris tourism. Not very relevant, so you keep typing…
That’s better. As you get more specific with your query, organic and paid search results start to appear with mentions of ‘Paris Apartments’.
Do you stop now and click though a link? Or do you keep searching and hope to get something even better?
Let’s keep typing…
Even better! As you add the words ‘for sale’ into you search query, organic and paid search results now only show listings for Paris apartments for sale. None of those irrelevant rental or holiday apartment listings. Just ones which are for sale.
So do you stop now and click through a link. They all look pretty good! Or do you keep on typing…
As you add the word ‘luxury’ into your search query, the results get even better! Organic and paid search listings for cheap, low cost, budget, discount apartments are no-where to be seen – all that’s visible are listings for luxury apartments. The best yet!
So when did you stop searching? When did something look relevant, catch your eye and bring your typing to an end? Was it after typing ‘paris apartments’? Or after ‘paris apartments for sale’? Or was it after ‘paris apartments for sale luxury’?
Where you (and others) decide to stop typing will be critical for paid search advertising. If it was early (e.g. ‘paris apartments’), it could mean a reduction in the traffic to long tail-searches, which would increase the price of short-tails, making it difficult for small, niche advertisers to compete with the big brands.
If it was late (e.g. ‘paris apartments for sale luxury’), then there could still be hope for the long-tail, with click through rates and conversion rates possibly rising with the improved quality of searches.
Exactly how people change their behaviour when searching will be crucial in determining the effect on paid search advertising.
Another critical behavioural factor is how people change the way they use their mouse. Prior to Google Instant, once I typed a query into Google and hit ‘search’, I tended to grab my mouse and browse through the results until I found something of relevance. If nothing satisfied my requirements, I would refine my search until I found what I was looking for.
Now, with Google Instant, there is no need to scroll through results with my mouse. I would simply keep typing, or change what I have typed, until I see relevant results on the search page. As soon as I see something which grabs my attention, I would let go of your keyboard, grab my mouse, and click through that listing. I don’t let go of my keyboard until I have already decided where I am going to click. With Google Instant, my mouse is no longer used for browsing through the results – it’s only used for clicking on what I have already decided to click on.
If my behaviour – of only using the mouse to click, rather than to browse – becomes the norm with Google Instant, this could have massive implications for paid search advertising.
If scrolling with the mouse through search results becomes a redundant activity, only above-the-fold ads in the top positions will have any chance of being clicked. Advertisers with ads in the lower positions (such as 7, 8, 9 and 10), will see their click through rate (CTR) fall considerably, and to retain a decent click volume, will likely increase their cost per click (CPC) keyword bids in an effort to appear above the fold.
Over time, this will raise the cost per click (CPC) prices of ads in the top positions. It is therefore likely to be smaller advertisers – who cannot afford to compete with the big brands – who are likely to suffer. Big brands will simply welcome the extra traffic.
Although it is difficult to predict exactly how people will adapt to Google Instant, the worst case scenario for pay per click advertising is scary. People accept shorter phrases, and only click on ads in the top few positions. Long-tail keywords fall in volume, and the price of short-tail, generic keywords rise considerably. Smaller advertisers struggle to compete.
The best case scenario is somewhat more comforting. The comprehensive search suggestions of Autocomplete and the ability to preview search results mean people enter more specific, detailed search queries. Long-tail search volume remains unchanged, or even rises as a result. And since users now see search results as they search, impressions are of a higher quality, so click through rates (CTR) and conversion rates rise.
While it’s too early to determine exactly what affect Google Instant is likely to have on pay per click advertising, it will no doubt change the way we search. But as long as Google’s Autocomplete continues to provide a wide selection of long-tail search suggestions (e.g. ‘paris apartments for sale luxury’), I don’t think the long-tail is in any immediate danger.
I think what is more likely, however, is a reduction in searches for phrases which are not in the Autocomplete list of search suggestions. I think people will learn to accept the search suggestions presented to them, and reduce the number of creative ad hoc ‘outside the box’ searches. As soon as you’ve reached the end of the road in the list of search suggestions, you would accept the suggestion as your search. I think only a small minority of people will go on to refine their search further, typing something even more specific as ‘paris apartments for sale luxury 2 bedrooms’.
Whether the long-tail is dead, and whether competition is focused on the top few ad positions, in my opinion is down to the extent to which Google continue to expand their range of long-tail Autocomplete suggestions. As as long as people continue to demand ever more specialised search results, and do so with ever more specific search queries, I think the long-tail is still very much alive.