Google has released its new Google Instant search-while-you-type interface. But the big news is not the slick new interface or the purported five seconds it can save searchers; if it's from Google, it's all about ads. For while Google is guessing what you're intending to search for, it's displaying ads—and counting impressions—every step of the way.
For travel advertisers, "close" usually isn't good enough
But more impressions is only consistently good for Google. For location-specific searches—like travel—matching partial searches by the text alone is not helpful: "from Boston" is a lot different from "from Baltimore"—or "from Bangalore"—even though the first six characters match perfectly.
To illustrate, let's conduct a common, travel search. According to Google's AdWords Keyword Tool, "flight" is the most common keyword in Travel & Tourism searches, as you might expect, with over 20 million searches each month. (N.B.: Google has created a complicated, dynamic, and adaptive system. Results can vary from moment to moment, and from location to location. This example, while genuine, is presented as an illustration only.)
Baseline: With Google Instant turned off, the search flights to hawaii from boston shows just four ads, from Delta, United, Expedia, and Continental:
But with Instant turned on, Google shows results—and ads—for no fewer than six different permutations of searches:
Eight ads are displayed from FlyJerk.com, Expedia, Travelocity, Fly.com, Southwest, Orbitz, Booking Buddy, and Travelzoo. Note the Miami campaign from Expedia:
2. flights to miami
Eight ads are displayed, most Miami-specific from FlyJerk, CheapOair.com, United, Southwest, FareSpotter.net, TripMama.com, RedCoachUSA.com, and Cheapflights.com. United's Honolulu campaign sticks out for going against Google's guess:
3. flights to hawaii
Oh, the difference an "H" can make! (And it's a good thing we're not searching for Maui specifically; Mexico and Miami come before Maui).
We see eight more ads, all Hawaii-specific campaigns, from United, Expedia, Continental, iFlyGo.com, LowFares.com, Cheapflights.com, Hawaiian Airlines, and FareSpotter.net. Twenty-four impressions into the experience, these are the first eight worth paying for:
4. flights to hawaii from dc
Fortunately, only two ads suffer from this bad guess, and only Expedia's appears to be a DC-specific campaign:
5. flights to hawaii from baltimore
Surprisingly, no ads are displayed for this bad guess:
6. flights to hawaii from boston
Finally we have the results we intended and see three ads from Delta, United, and Expedia:
Final score: 29 ad impressions for Google Instant vs. 4 (+625%)
Saved by the three-second rule?
While results and ads are guessed and displayed immediately, Google only counts ad impressions if displayed for three seconds. "Google Instant changes the way we think about [and count] impressions," says this post on Google's Inside AdWords blog:
With Google Instant, an impression is counted if a user takes an action to choose a query (for example,presses the Enter key or clicks the Search button), clicks a link on the results page, or stops typing for three or more seconds.
It's possible that this feature may increase or decrease your overall impression levels. However, Google Instant may ultimately improve the quality of your clicks since it helps users type queries that more directly connect them with the answers they need.
In our example, most of the guesses were bad enough not to pause over. If we only count the impressions generated for the intermediate "flights to hawaii" and the ultimate "flights to hawaii from boston", that still contitutes a 200% increase in measured impressions.
What's an advertiser to do?
Any large-scale bidding system is a game (as in "game theory" not as in "fun"), and Google Instant just changed many of the rules advertisers have been working under.
1. Change your thinking. Take Google at its word; if Google Instant changes the way they think about impressions, it should change the way you think about impressions, too. Don't underestimate the effect of this change on your campaigns—or your search advertising budget.
2. Monitor your impression-to-click-through ratios carefully. Expect to spend some quality time over the next couple of weeks with Google's analytical tools. Be on the watch for sudden increases in your impressions without corresponding click-through increases.
3. Be prepared to decrease your bids on impressions accordingly—perhaps to zero. Most AdWord campaigns are not brand-building exercises. You need click-throughs. If Google Instant dilutes your impressions with bad guesses, vote with your dollars and decrease your maximum bids for impressions.