There have been a number of significant changes recently to Google's search function to make it more relevant for users – namely Google Instant, the use of Google Places in search, and Google Instant Preview.
But what do these changes mean for small businesses trying to sort their search rankings out?
Instant Preview is a function that allows users to preview the appearance of a webpage as a thumbnail before clicking on it. While this has no bearing on search relevancy, it could potentially affect clickthroughs.
If a user doesn’t like the design of the page they see in the thumbnail, they’re much less likely to click on it. So Google’s influence now extends beyond content and into the design of a website, albeit somewhat superficially.
Importantly, the preview function currently doesn’t support flash, instead replacing it with a blacked-out puzzle piece or black square in the preview pane. This presents a significant obstacle for flash-based websites, but Google is currently endeavouring to fix this.
Llew Jury, MD of Reload Media, has some sound advice for businesses concerned about preparing for Instant Preview.
“Keep your web pages simple with fewer distractions. Keep interfering content to a minimum. Ad Pop-ups and other elements may come up in your page preview, making it less appealing.”
Jury also advises against the use of a nosnippet meta tag in the code for webpages, as this will not only bar descriptive snippets from search, but will also disrupt the search function.
You may have noticed that when you type a phrase into Google now, instead of having to hit ‘search’, the results change instantly with each new word you type, trying to anticipate your full intended search phrase. Why was this function introduced?
Instant means that long-tail queries – those with three or four words in them – will become more relevant, as Ash Aryal, a consultant at QuantumLinx explains.
"Data has already proven that these type of specific terms bring about the highest conversion rates anyway, because people using this know what they want,” says Aryal.
“If you think about how a person graduates from searcher to customer, you'll understand that Google Instant hasn't changed the process for most buyers – it’s just sped it up.”
Previously, users would make a number of different searches before clicking on a site, due to uncertainty as to what exactly they were looking for. They would then refine their search phrase depending on the results being displayed by Google.
“In other words, users typically were using the search results pages as feedback to evaluate whether the search term they were using was really getting them the answers they were looking for," explains Aryal.
With Google Instant, searchers can receive real-time feedback based on each word they type, meaning that they get more relevant results faster.
According to Andy Henderson, an SEO consultant at WebConsulting, it’s still too soon to tell what kind of permanent impact this development is likely to have on user search behaviour.
“At the moment, users are clearly paying attention to the ‘instant search’ results and many are clicking on a result before finishing their query,” says Henderson.
“There may be a novelty factor to this, and search behaviour may revert once the novelty has worn off. There was a similar initial change when Google suggest came out.”
If the user behaviour doesn’t revert to the way it was, explains Henderson, there is likely to be a homogenisation of search queries. In addition to an instant list of results for every word entered, Google is continuing to offer a list of ‘guessed’ search suggestions, based upon recent use of similar words. This means thats that the most popular queries get more popular, and the more specific queries may drop off in volume. This is Google’s concession to leading users to the relevant ‘long tail’ search phrases, but might result in searches leading away from what the specific thing that the user might be after (ie multicoloured, alpaca-wool toe-socks) to more popular search terms as noted by Google (ie standard toe-socks).
“Users may also start to alter the way they construct queries – for example there may be an incentive to start the query with the more specific keywords,” notes Henderson.
To adapt to this change, businesses may need to be cleverer about how they implement keywords and the associated phrases across their websites. As Henderson explains, Instant is likely to favour high volume keyword searches, and the order in which keywords appear within the phrases may become more pertinent.
“In the past the order of keywords had relatively little impact, but Google Instant is likely to change that. In order to rank well for ‘Instant’ results, businesses will need to be more careful about keyword analysis and more selective about the keyword phrases they optimise their sites for.”
Jury makes the valid point that Google Instant is unlikely to dramatically change the competition between businesses.
“All advertisers are facing the same changes, so the playing field is level. For AdWords campaigns (SEM), even if an ad does get more impressions, the overall quality score will not be hampered as all other advertisers are experiencing the same increase (if any) in impressions.”
Given the burgeoning popularity of mobile, and the GPS possibilities that location-specific search offers smartphone users, it was only a matter of time before Google integrated their Places function more closely with their search services.
Google Places gives businesses the possibility of listing themselves according to their location on Google Maps.
Places has been around for a little while, but recent developments have made it much more prominent. Henderson explains that Google normally assumes that users are looking for local content, and will automatically favour local results, based on IP address or search history, regardless of whether or not a location is included in the enquiry. This is because the search giant thinks a local result is, by definition, a more relevant result. The recent development means that if Google detects you’re searching explicitly for a location-specific thing (ie shoelace store, bondi beach), it will immediately bring up a map with relevant locations for the kind of product you’re after.
It’s essential for small businesses that are planning to get to the first page of Google to ensure they’re also in Places, otherwise this new map trigger will ignore them entirely.
“Currently, Places listings receive a much more prominent “top of the page” status, with traditional organic results shunted to the bottom of the page,” says Henderson. "I’m not convinced that this is going to stay that way, but Places listings will continue to be important. At the moment, it is too easy to get a well ranked Places listing and too easy to ‘game’. I believe that Google needs to get smarter about how they select and rank Places listings.”
It’s not just enough for a business to be listed on Google places; they need to maximise their presence. As with normal search results, one of the best ways of doing this is to saturate it with content. Use keywords in descriptions and categories, provide images and videos, and encourage customers to submit reviews.
“Additionally, keyword rich content in the description boxes, optimising the categories to include geographic descriptors and uploading photos, can all help improve your listings’ rank position,” suggests Jury.
SImply put, the recent developments don’t drastically disadvantage anyone in terms of search. It remains to be seen whether or not Google Instant will change users’ habits for the better when searching on Google. It’s essential for all small businesses to invest some time in saturating their Google Places listing with relevant content. And if a business is currently in the process of creating a website, it would be wise to lean away from excessive use of flash on the homepage, as this may hinder clickthroughs regardless of your SEO efforts.
Not so scary, really.
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Image credit: A screenshot of the Google Instant Preview function