Sep 272012

Google Instant, Query Behavior, and the Long Tail

There was some speculation when Google Instant rolled out that it would fundamentally change search behavior. The notion was that searches would become more compact with Instant giving immediate suggestions, thereby collapsing the long tail (which are often indicated by queries of 4-6 terms and longer). But is that really the case? Since it's been two years since Google Instant launched, we thought it would be useful to look at this again.

A few caveats to mention before we look at the data:

  1. This analysis makes the assumption that long tail queries are defined by term length, which is a fallacy. There can certainly be "head" terms of 4 or even 5 words in length, and there can be "tail" terms that are a single word. That said, let's use this data as an indication of trends at least, since term length does tend to correlate with search volume.
  2. The (not provided) segment has been excluded from this data set. Leaving it in results in a noticeable rise in the 2-word search bucket.
  3. We've also excluded our clients' brand terms as they often make up a substantial portion of organic search traffic and would skew the results towards whichever word count bucket their name falls into.

With those assumptions in mind, let's take a look at the data. This is a sample of RKG SEO clients across categories.

Organic Search: Average Share by Word Count (Non-Brand)

Google organic search term length

Noteworthy here is that frequency for 4, 5, and 6 word queries is on the rise. Surely an argument could be made that, as SEO clients of RKG, this is natural. As a response to that, it should be pointed out that not all clients experience increases in long tail traffic, and some don't even have opportunity in that area. There are some markets and industries where search volume is especially compressed and represented in the head.

It is interesting to see this data, especially when there was real fear that Instant would corrode the long tail in time. That just isn't bearing out.

What are you seeing?


7 Responses to "Google Instant, Query Behavior, and the Long Tail"
Keith says:
It's amazing how many people focus on hyper-competitive keywords, when the real growth has always been in the long tail. It may not be glamorous or fun to brag about, but it's where the leads and revenue lie. Do you know how large the sample size is? Data looks pretty convincing but had to ask.
AJ Kohn says:
It's great to see this analysis since I was one of those who was concerned when Google's autocomplete kicked into high gear. The data here does seem to indicate that those fears were unfounded. One of the reasons may be the ongoing evolution of autocomplete. Google has made a number of refinements that make typing beyond the normal phrases much easier. Even when there are no suggestions right away, a new one appears as I begin to type a new word (thank you Google Scribe!) I'm also be interested in how mobile searches played into this data.
Glad to see this. I've doubted the notion that long tail would be impacted...if a searcher has a very specific, focused long tail search in mind, it is perhaps less likely that they will settle for a "quick and possibly close" answer. If anything, what I suspect and would be interesting to measure would be a consolidation at the head to torso range. So the 2, 3 and perhaps 4 word phrases might still represent the dominant search volume, but the number of distinct phrases driving that traffic has perhaps decreased. Adam, I also have to commend you on the first caveat. I always try to communicate this whenever I discuss what long tail entails, but the majority of discussions and explanations focus purely on number of words as the defining point. In general it may hold true the majority of the time and it makes it easier to communicate, but not entirely correct. Cheers
In my opinion Google Instant encouraged user to go for long tail keywords. It makes sense to me, for example if I am living in Delhi, I am in search of a "Punjabi Marriage Bureau", I put it in Google and as soon as I reach at the start of 3rd term "Bureau", Google Instant starts showing 3 options that are "Punjabi Marriage Bureau in Canada" "Punjabi Marriage Bureau in Mumbai" and "Punjabi Marriage Bureau in Delhi", and obviously I would go with 3rd one because I am living in Delhi. Without Google Instant I would have stopped at "Bureau", So I think growth in the long tail searches is due to the presence Google instant.
@Keith thanks for the comments. This data is from a sample of about 25 SEO clients. @Brian interesting points all around. Thank you! @Devendra that seems like valid reasoning to me, too. We'll keep an eye on this over the next few months and continue to report back.
AJ - sorry about the delay getting your comment published, I had to rescue it from the spam abyss. Whitelisted you so shouldn't be a problem now. As I mentioned on Google+, we'll take a look at this without mobile searches, and we'll take a look at mobile alone too. Good idea.


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