Google Instant and the long tail

The web is ablaze with analysis and opinion about Google’s latest change to their search offering – Google Instant. If you just got back from a round-the-world solo boat voyage, allow me to fill you in. Google Instant serves search results as soon as you start typing into the search box, continuously changing to reflect results according to what you enter.

Most people’s first impression is that it is amazing for Google to be serving search results on the fly like this. There is no doubt that, in a large number of cases, it will enhance user experience, and that many people are going to get what they want far quicker and easier than before.

One interesting topic to think about is the impact Google Instant will have on the “long tail” of keywords and search queries, and the effect that this will have on Search Engine Marketing.

What is the long tail?
The long tail is a way of describing the thousands or millions of keywords that receive relatively low amounts of search traffic, because of how many words they are comprised of and how specific they are. For example, if you search for ‘Dunlop Tennis Racket Aerogel 4D Tour’, then that is a long tail search, contrasted to a search for ‘Tennis Rackets’ which is known as a ‘head’ search.

There are two important differences between long tail searches and head searches for Pay per click(PPC) and SEO people.

1) Head searches receive a large amount of traffic and are, as a result, highly competitive. There are many businesses running SEO and PPC campaigns that put a lot of effort and money into ranking highly on the search engine results pages for high-traffic head keywords. Long tail keywords, in contrast, are far less competitive; therefore it is cheaper and easier to rank high up on the results page with both organic and paid entries. But there is less traffic.

2) People searching with long tail search queries know much more about what they want – that’s why they are searching with such long, specific keyword phrases. This is often (successfully) converted into the assumption that these people are further along in the buying cycle than those using more head type searches. Perhaps the searcher has done a lot of research into what they want to buy, or perhaps they just know exactly what it is that they want.

The result is that long tail keywords often have far higher conversion rates than head keywords – that is, a person arriving at your e-commerce site after performing a more long tail-type search is more likely to buy something than someone who has arrived after performing a head search.

What is the relevance for Google Instant?
Because Google Instant serves search results on the fly, as you type in your search query, both the organic results and the ads change to match what you are typing in.

The changes could be profound for long tail searches. People who were intending to use a long tail search query may end up getting good enough results when they have only typed in part of what they were intending to.

In the tennis racket example, someone will likely start to get fairly relevant ads after just typing ‘Dunlop’, let alone ‘Dunlop tennis’ or ‘Dunlop tennis racket’. They will not see ‘Aerogel 4D Tour’ in the copy of the results they are seeing, but it is very plausible that a large amount of people would click on an ad that claims ‘complete range of Dunlop tennis rackets’ for example, and will not complete the rest of their long tail search query.

What does this mean for Marketers?
Ultimately what this means is that the more competitive head keyword search results are going to get far more traffic, at the expense of the more long tail keyword results. This has huge implications for search marketers. It is far more expensive to run campaigns focused on competitive head keywords, and conversion rates may often be lower.

There are plenty of brilliantly structured and managed paid search campaigns that benefit from exploiting the cheaper long tail keywords. Google Instant could in many ways be the final nail in the coffin of the long tail. Who is the party that will benefit most from increased traffic for head keyword searches? Yep. Google.



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