Google Instant – Putting the Chunky Middle on a Diet?


When Google announced their new instant search results a few weeks ago (September 8, to be exact) a lot of search marketers made various hypotheses. There were the typical doom-and-gloom, SEO is dead posts from those seeking attention by using controversy as a link bait tactic. Then there were the more level headed responses questioning whether long-tail traffic would increase, decrease, or stay the more or less the same. Now that we’ve been living in a Google instant world for a few weeks, I wanted to take a look at the data to see if any trends were really starting to emerge.

The Details

Number of sites: I looked at 24 sites, ranging in size from small (900 monthly visits) to large (2.4 million monthly visits) and everything in between. The average monthly visits for all sites was 190,250.

Time Frame: I compared 23 days of pre-Google Instant (Wednesday, Aug. 11 – Thursday, Sept. 2) to 23 days post-Google Instant (Wednesday, Sept. 8 – Thursday Sept. 30).

Total number of visits and keywords: During that time frame, there were 3,182,487 visits from 1,197,374 keywords.

The Numbers

I looked at two main metrics, percentage of search visits from keywords of a given length and percentage of keywords of a given length. Then I segmented those metrics by total organic search and non-branded organic search. First up, the total organic search numbers:

So far, nothing too drastic seems to be happening. One-word searches (the head terms) and 5+ word searches (the tail terms) seem to be edging out the 2, 3, and 4-word searches (the chunky middle). But I’m not running for the hills just yet. Let’s change channels now to look at just the non-branded search visits and keywords.

Again, no clear conclusions that point to the death of the long-tail here. If anything, the data (as limited as it is after only three weeks) points to a very slight increase in the tail.

Aside: if you want to learn how to see visits in Google Analytics by keyword length, read John’s post on Keyword Analysis by Number of Terms (and the RegEx That Helps). In short, you can use the following regular expression in the keyword filter field: ^(W*w+bW*){1}$ where the number within the curly braces is the number of keywords in the search term.

One other thing that I looked at was the share of search of the top 3 search engines. Particularly, I wanted to see if Google’s share of search increased or decreased – did people hate it enough to switch to Bing/Yahoo? Here’s the aggregated data:

Google’s share of search increased by nearly 1%, but those numbers actually hide some of the nuances of particular sites and industries. For example, one site saw Google’s share of search increase from 71% to 80.39%, while another site saw it decrease from 72.04% to 68.1%. Although there were a few sites that saw those kinds of significant shifts, for most sites they remained relatively unchanged.

Your Turn…

Have you seen any changes since Google Instant? Have I missed anything? Let me know in the comments!


Jim Gianoglio is a Manager for the Analytics & Insight department. He works with implementation, analysis and training of Google Analytics and Google Tag Manager. Before focusing on analytics, he led the SEO campaigns of Fortune 500 companies in the insurance, retail and CPG industries. Things you didn’t know about Jim: he’s biked from Pittsburgh to Washington DC in 41 hours, roasts coffee beans and has done voiceovers for TV commercials.

  • C. Bagdon

    Great post.

    If possible, I’d like to see how your traffic numbers from Sept. 8, 2009 to Sept. 30, 2009 compare to Sept. 8, 2010 to Sept. 30, 2010.

    My company’s e-commerce site receives roughly 27k visits/month.

    Comparing traffic for August 11, 2010 to September 2, 2010 with traffic for September 8, 2010 to September 30, 2010: We’ve seen a 9.8% increase in all organic search traffic, 11.18% increase in organic Google search traffic, and a 9.14% increase in organic search traffic via Yahoo!, Bing, and AOL Search.

    As of right now, we’re happy with those numbers.

  • Have you attempted to measure how many visitors are actually seeing Instant? As you guys know segmentation is the key to understanding :p

  • Jim

    @C. Bagdon – Not all of the sites that I included in this study have data from a year ago (some newer sites). But I agree, it would be interesting to see how things have shifted since the same time period last year.

    @Steve – I tried that initially using an advanced filter ( but as it turns out, that technique only pulls in data from Google Suggest, not Google Instant. So I don’t have any hard numbers on how many people are seeing/using Google Instant at this point.

    If anyone has any data on that, please let us know in the comments!

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