Google Instant and The End of the Homepage

Much of today’s discussion around Google Instant, which returns search results and suggests query refinements as you type in a query, is about how the new technology will change search engine optimization and advertising economics. What I haven’t seen is a discussion of how it will change the most fundamental interaction on the web: between  people and websites.

And my guess is that more people will use Google to navigate directly to the desired spot within a site, rather than simply to find the right site. Each site on the Web will have less influence over how the consumer moves through that site, and the consumer will have more control.

This is a big change that began earlier with Google Mobile and Google Chrome’s address-bar search but it’s coming into full view now. For example, as you type Redfin into Google, the first search result will be the home page of Redfin’s website. But Google will suggest that you search on Redfin Seattle, Redfin blog, Redfin San Francisco, encouraging you to bypass the Redfin home page entirely. This is more efficient, and better for you as a user.

As Google accumulates more data on user preferences, the suggested queries will become increasingly precise, and users will rely on those suggested queries not just to save them the trouble of typing out what they want, but even of figuring out what they want.

Prompted by Google, we’ll also tend to follow in one another’s footsteps, rather than blazing our own trail. As the distance between the collective brain and our own brain shrinks, and as web searching becomes indistinguishable from thinking — every year, I spend less time considering any problem before issuing my first Google search  – our thinking will more quickly fall into familiar patterns.

Suggesting well-worn paths for further investigation is exactly what a home page does, but now Google runs that home page  for all the websites that Google users access. The storytelling that many websites want to engage their audience in, beginning with one web page that guides users to the next page and the next, will become a choose-your-own-adventure book assembled by Google, where users are liable to start on any given page, and move from site to site.

For Redfin this means that we have to tell the story of our company on every web page, whether that page is about homes for sale in Seattle or a blog post about Case-Shiller data, almost like the tattooed amnesiac in Memento. If Redfin didn’t have map-based search with a large number of specialized filters on bedrooms and bathrooms, we’d probably have to consider going further, using Google as the front-end for listing search, reducing our own site to a giant set of listing web pages.

By that rationale,  the entire Web would become a static, simple content repository designed to be indexed in Google, not a series of sites each used in an interactive or graphical way on its own. But that isn’t likely to happen. Companies have data on how their own sites are used that Google doesn’t. And social networks are sharing information with those sites about the friends we have with similar tastes. Already, plenty of sites show me which products and pages my friends liked, and what my history suggests about what I’ll like in the future too.

As Google gets smarter, the web it indexes has to get smarter, too. And the poor old home page will either become personalized, socialized or bypassed entirely.

Discussion

  • http://twitter.com/evanjacobs Evan Jacobs

    The trends that you've described are a natural evolution for Google and I agree that continuing down this path leads to a world where Google becomes a user's starting point for navigating all websites. However, there is another powerful trend developing which has the potential to greatly disrupt Google's ability to act as the index for the Internet.

    People looking for information about Seattle real estate are increasingly using tools like Twitter to post simple (or sophisticated) queries describing their needs. Imagine if there were intelligent agents (i.e. computer programs) listening to these messages which could instantly reply with relevant information. In this interaction, Google would be disintermediated since Redfin could now respond directly to a user's query without first having to buy AdWords or create a “Google-friendly” website.

    • http://blog.redfin.com GlennKelman

      That's a great insight Evan, taking what I'd suggested around socially-driven navigation a step further…

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  • http://www.columbia-re.com Brett Frosaker

    This appears to be a google solution to a consumer desire. Consumers know what they want and they want it now. Yesterday I read a post about an agent who was claiming “top 1% nationally”. I asked my self, self;“what does one have to make to qualify to be in the top 1% nationally?”. I turned to google and got page after page of crap. Many times when I go to a web page I go straight to the bottom to find the site map. There I can usually see if the web site has what I’m looking for. It sounds like the google plan is to do that step for me. I’m totally cool with this as long as it doesn’t lead us back to the portal days of AOL and MSN.

    Brett Frosaker

    • http://blog.redfin.com GlennKelman

      Fascinating point Brett; I don't think Google has a goal of being a portal like AOL and MSN. Google makes money off intention rather than attention.

  • http://www.augustarealestate.org Phil Georg

    Not even Google is perfect and if this helps people find what they are looking for quicker I'm all for it. We may have to thank Twitter and Facebook for Google providing this enhancement.

    • http://blog.redfin.com GlennKelman

      That's an interesting insight Phil, that Google Instant may have been a response to the spontaneous nature of Twitter and Facebook.

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  • http://www.brookfieldsd.com Coleen

    There are two ways this could go. People could type in less than they otherwise would, or they could type in more. If they're looking for Redfin and they type redf and see the result they want, they'll probably click on it without typing anything more. On the other hand, if they've typed in what they intended to type in and they still don't see any results they like, they'll probably keep typing until their query is specific enough.

    I think that Google expects them to type in less. That would result in less long-tail keywords and more general keywords, which get them more money per click on the ppc results. If that's true, homepages are still likely to come up in natural search.

    We'll just have to wait and see how people adapt to it.

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