Tread carefully in era of Google Instant Search

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Google's new Instant Search, the nifty feature that updates search results as you type a query, represents an interesting leap in user experience and ostensibly helps users find results faster. After experimenting with it as a user, I was impressed. As an SEM professional, however, I harbor a few reservations. 

Some predictions:

  • Impressions will jump and click-through rates will fall
  • Conversion rates will drop as negatives lose effectiveness
  • Reporting will become muddied
  • Long-tail keywords will lose volume

First, I would expect impression volume to jump substantially. When I type the word “toy” into Google, instant search predicts that I will continue typing “Toyota” as my query. It preemptively fills in my search results with the homepage of Toyota and also fills in the AdWords with ads for Toyotas. However, as I continue typing my query, I might fill in “Toys R Us.” Toyota has now served an ad for cars to a user who is looking for toys, a query they never would have displayed on before.

Next, negative match will become less effective. If I continue the example above and type out “toys r us lead paint,” I get no results. Assuming that Toys R Us has used “lead paint” as a negative match keyword, they have now served an ad to a user who was using one of their negative keywords, dampening the benefit of using that negative.

Reporting will become an issue as well. If I type “Toy” and I click on an ad for Toyota, am I reported to the advertiser as having searched “Toy” or “Toyota?”  After all, I had not typed the full word before clicking and yet I was shown an ad for the full query.

Finally, and most importantly, the long tail of search may be severely impacted. If I intend to type “Toyota prius blue used near New York City,” I might click on an ad after typing “Toyota pri.”  If the advertiser had bid on “Toyota prius new york” for a $1 average CPC and “Toyota Prius” for a $3 average CPC, the user query that would have cost $1 before now costs that advertiser $3. The user effectively abandons the query before it has a chance to become the less-expensive long tail version.

Google has said that they will not count an ad impression if a user does not see the ad for more than three seconds. The implication of this is twofold: First, you may get clicks with no impressions. Users can be quick clickers and they may hit your ad before an impression even registers. Second, many fleeting impressions (less than three seconds) will go unrecorded.

I would prefer to know when a user sees my ads displayed out of context. I would also like to know what keywords Google is predictively filling in so I can enter those as negatives. Google has effectively defined what an impression is. Even if a user loads your ad for two seconds, they still have an opportunity to see it. An impression can be registered with the user and not with Google. Granted, there can be a branding benefit to such “fleeting impressions,” but marketers need to know how often it is happening.

One way to prevent these detrimental effects might be to use more exact match to prevent your ad from appearing before the query is complete but this might not be an optimal strategy in every case. For the next few weeks we search marketers will simply have to keep a close eye on how our accounts are trending and adjust accordingly.

Ammon Brown is the VP of search and analytics at Traffiq, a digital media planning, buying and management platform facilitating the buying and selling of display media.

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