Google Instant Search = Instant Echo Chamber

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The Internet is a Mighty Echo Chamber, and with one fell swoop, Google Instant Search has added a big ole’ Marshall Stack to turn the Echo levels all the way up to 11

Google reports that Instant Search will save 350 million hours of user time per year.  What isn’t reported is how it will cut off the Long Tail where it starts by promoting banal sameness for searchers.  This is great for Google.  After all, keeping up with every last oddball search someone may want to do costs them more infrastructure money.  At their scale, it is significant.  So, corralling everyone into fewer more common searches is a good thing.

“What the heck is Bob on about here?” you ask.  Well Google Instant Search is adding more people to the ranks that the lovely lady with the sledgehammer is trying to shake up.  Let me explain:

The Long Tail is a delicate thing.  We love the romantic notion that the Internet enables the Long Tail, and it does, to an extent.  But it is also toxic to the Long Tail in many ways.  The Long Tail is all about access, awareness, and distribution.  There are many strange and wonderful things waiting for us (that link from this fascinating Seth Godin post), if we can explore the Long Tail.  It makes the Internet a much richer place.  Some view them as no more than tourist traps along the Information Superhighway, but if you hunger to Escape the Follower Economy, they are much beloved oases from the Madding Rush that is the Crowd and Internet Homogeneity.  The Internet enables the Long Tail by making it possible for people to find these oddities in large enough numbers that they can survive.  Simultaneously, the Internet provides the means to kill the Long Tail by siphoning off that traffic through the Echo Chamber.  The Echo Chamber amplifies homogeneity.  It gives power to the most popular at the expense of the more obscure.  It homogenizes and pasteurizes away what’s interesting, wholesome, and unique in favor of what’s trendy, salacious, and boring.

How does Google Instant Search contribute to the Echo Chamber?  Well anyone who has bothered to look through keyword information on their website will see that people find sites through a bewildering array of queries.  Some might even say much of it is accidental, but looking over these lists gives a wonderful window onto how your content is found and perceived by others.  How often do we get to commit such telepathy with our followers?  Rarely.  Yet, Instant Search will substitute popular searches for those individually created.  More people will be driven off the back roads search trails and onto the superhighways that lead to whomever controls the first few search results connected to the Instant Searches Google is recommending at the time.

A few people are getting past the breathlessness of simply reporting what Google had to say, and they’re seeing with good insight what it really means.  Steve Rubel (hat tip to Techmeme) reports it is the end of SEO.  Steve is right in his conclusion about SEO, but not about why.  He provides the money quote from Google:

“Smarter Predictions: Even when you don’t know exactly what you’re looking for, predictions help guide your search. The top prediction is shown in grey text directly in the search box, so you can stop typing as soon as you see what you need.”

From that, Rubel argues:

Here’s what this means: no two people will see the same web. Once a single search would do the trick – and everyone saw the same results. That’s what made search engine optimization work. Now, with this, everyone is going to start tweaking their searches in real-time. The reason this is a game changer is feedback. When you get feedback, you change your behaviors.

The trouble is, we may paraphrase the Google Smarter Predictions quote as, “Even when you don’t know exactly what you’re looking for, we will push you in the direction of what the masses are looking for.  We will perturb search in the direction of sameness.”

If, instead of feedback changing behaviors to be less predictable as Rubel implies, it actually makes the behaviors more predictable because we are guided to sameness, SEO is still dead, but for a much less interesting reason.  This sameness makes it much harder to game.  You can no longer count on the Long Tail queries to help you out when you can’t secure the top spots on the common queries.  It is a repressive tax on the Long Tail, in other words.

Is it good or bad for Google?  According to one of the commenters on Rubel’s post, Google has said (I don’t have a better reference) that 75% of searches are common and 25% are unique.  That’s certainly true if I look at the logs of access to my web properties via keywords.  One can only assume that Google views this as a margin play.  If they can cut out the Long Tail which is bid low click prices, and get more people flowing on the Short Tail, the 75%, that Short Tail traffic now has to pay more.  It’s like eBay getting more people to bid on fewer items.  Supply and Demand.  Perhaps their analysis is that they own so much market share and the volume of search is growing so slowly that it’s time to crank the margins.  Whatever the reasons, I am saddened at the inevitable strengthening of the Echo Chamber at the expense of the Long Tail.

I’ve written on the Echo Chamber many times in the past (Mediocrity Amplifier, Echo Chamber FailLouis Gray Resonation, Deconstructing Techmeme), and all of it negatively.  For me, the most interesting search results are almost never on the first page Google hands back, nor do they show up on my first query.  I religiously ferret out blogs that are no of the Echo Chamber Aggregator variety.  Those are the ones I read.  The EC Aggregators go into a single Reader folder and I scan them to make sure I haven’t missed something of rising popularity.  I do miss things with my Long Tail readings, but not much, and the effort I have to spend just sorting through the Echo Chamber is barely worth it.  Those are the first items I will delete if they sit too long without being read.

Google, while I know there was no malice with forethought, this Instant Search thing just might qualify as Evil when we look at the consequences…

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“The normative influence of Google just got a lot stronger.”  — Exactly what I’m saying about amplifying the Echo Chamber!

The status of the long-tail query is my biggest concern in the paid search world.” — Amen.

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