Google Instant, keyword order and the long tail

by Tom Albrighton 10 September 2010 SEO

This lunchtime, I read this excellent post by Andrew Nattan at FirstFound. Andrew describes the new Google Instant feature, and puts forward his view that it will put long-tail searches to the fore.

I won’t explain Instant again, since Andrew’s done such a good job of it. For those who don’t know, long-tail searches are highly specific searches that lead to a smaller number of results. For example, a broad search term such as ‘ice cream’ leads to 111bn results, while ‘organic ice cream’ leads to 5,450,000 and ‘organic dairy free ice cream’ leads to 244,000. So ‘ice cream’ is a generic term, while ‘organic dairy free ice cream’ is a long-tail term. Long-tail terms are generally less competitive, but they attract less traffic; generic terms are more competitive and attract more traffic.

Andrew’s view is that Google Instant will encourage more long-tail searches, with the instant feedback encouraging people to type additional words to see how they modify the search results. I’m sure this is true. They’ll probably try chopping and changing their search modifiers too, as well as deleting them if they feel the resulting set of results is too small.

However, the order of words in long-tail terms will be crucial in determining the impact of Google Instant. Specifically, if the search modifiers come after the main keyword, I think there’s more likelihood of diversion before the search is completed.

Let me work through an example that’s close to my heart. Someone in Norwich needs a copywriter. So they go to Google and type in ‘norwich copywriter’. Until they type the second word, Google will have no idea what they’re searching for. With just ‘norwich’ typed in, they’ll probably be looking at a load of tourism sites. Then, once they go on to add ‘copywriter’, Google will give them the results they’re looking for.

But what if they type ‘copywriter norwich’? With Instant active, they’d see the (UK-wide) results for ‘copywriter’ before they typed ‘norwich’. At that point, they could easily think, ‘you know what? I don’t really need my copywriter to be in Norwich. Let me have a look at some of these ones.’ And if they click away from the search, they might never return.

Let’s suppose they do stay with the search. Two keystrokes later, at ‘copywriter no’, they might see the results for ‘copywriter nottingham’. They’re perhaps less likely to click a result at this point, but experience shows that we should never underestimate the laziness, inattention or sheer obtuseness of the average web user. Not everyone is hyper-search-literate, fine-tuning the Google machine to chime with their carefully considered intentions. People just don’t care that much what they click on. (You could argue that the whole PPC advertising phenomenon depends on that fact.) And even a mistaken click to a rockin’ site might be enough to divert them from their original intent.

Note that none of this could happen with the ice cream example discussed above. Since the adjectives precede the noun, Google has to wait until the end of the phrase to know what ‘thing’ the searcher wants to be organic and dairy free.

In other languages, where adjectives usually follow nouns (such as French), it would have a much better chance of showing some diverting results before the searcher got as far as entering all their modifiers.

To sum up, I think Instant will result in some ‘leakage’ back to generic terms from long-tail terms that previously locked in their traffic, particularly if the modifiers (adjectives, locations) in the search phrase follow on from the main subject (noun).

Also, although it’s less likely, a long-tail term including a string that will return a list of potentially relevant results (as with the nottingham example above) carries a smaller but still potentially damaging risk of leakage.

These changes could make some difference to the long-tail terms that are worth targeting: terms with differing word order that were previously equivalent might turn out to be less attractive, as might those including sub-strings that return potentially diverting results.

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