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Google Instant Search Instantly Kills 90 Percent of Web Business Strategy

Google's (GOOG) announcement of instant search has dropped with a thud for many who see the Web as a business venue. Whether the sound was a momentary distraction or the concussion of a detonation depends on who you listen to. But looking at what this could portend, put me in the camp of those ducking behind the blast shields.

If you haven't seen a demonstration of Google Instant, here's a video from the company that should give you some idea. It may look familiar at first, as though it's nothing more than suggested search terms, but pay attention to the entire search screen. The results change as someone types:

"It should feel like magic?" Sounds like someone has been listening to Apple (AAPL) CEO Steve Jobs. But there is something both subtle and substantive going on. The results change depending on what answers Google thinks is most likely to be what a consumer wants to see.

I tried the instant version of search and got the following results on the third letter typed:

What I found interesting was the fifth potential entry -- a ski area a short drive from where I live. Other experiments showed that results for other searches would push potential local matches. Now what if someone is either logged into a Google service or uses a browser with cookies that effectively track a user ID? Then far more information can go into predicting what someone might seek. And, as I noted last month, what Google thinks you might want can depend a lot on the personal information it has collected about a user.

Google has already noted that the search changes could result in significant fluctuations of the response to a given keyword. Clearly things will be different. How different? Google's Sergey Brin said that search engine optimization would basically stay the same. However, people in the industry don't necessarily buy it.

Steve Rubel of PR firm Edelman Digital thinks that instant search means that "no two people will see the same web," and all will accordingly change their search behavior. That, Rubel argues, will make it virtually impossible to optimize sites because sites have to focus on how large numbers of people search, not how they react to individual promptings. That affects any web site.

John Ellis at SearchEngineLand had a similar concern, though about ads. " When targeting keywords, I need to have consistency across regions," he wrote. "Having that consistency allows me to target regions the way I want to with ads, not how Google Instant chooses."

His bigger worry is about the long tail theory of placing ads. It's expensive to buy broadly targeted keywords for ads. You can get too many results, effectively making it costly to sort out the few you want to talk to from the many. A way around that is using more specific terms. For example, you could have ads tied to "Las Vegas 5-star hotel" rather than "Las Vegas."

Now with Google Instant, that changes. With our example, starting the query with "Las", shows ads for Las Vegas. Some of those ads are for hotels. Why would a user continue typing if they see hotel ads already? As an advertiser this forces me to bid on "Las Vegas" to compete. Thus, making me put more dollars in Google's pockets. This kills the need to bid on long-tail keywords. Users may never even get to "Las V--" much less "Las Vegas 5-star Hotels", "Las Vegas hotels on the strip", "Las Vegas hotels on the North Strip", etc.
Whether we talk of ads or getting attention on search pages, the underlying issues are the same. Whether you've placed ads for a hotel, are Demand Media driving readers to your how-to articles on obscure topics, a tooling company looking for potential manufacturing customers, or part of the mainstream media, search engines have allowed you to use statistical patterns of how large blocks of people search for information.

However, Google has changed the equation by trying to do much of the search and decision making on behalf of the user. That will make users behave differently, and likely force companies of all sorts to reconsider how they approach search engines. Instead of patterns among large groups of consumers, they'll have to try to understand smaller and more focused groups. This essentially becomes an exercise in niche direct marketing and is a far more expensive and difficult proposition than what companies have done before.

The changes will happen over time, as the new facility is eventually integrated into various browsers and tool bars. But happen, they will. Welcome to the new world of the Web.


Image: user hisks, site standard license. Editing: Erik Sherman.