Google Instant Search: The Complete User’s Guide

Google Instant promises to change the way people search. Speaking at today’s announcement, Google’s Marissa Mayer called it a “fundamental shift in search.” As with any big Google announcement, there are questions: Who can use Google Instant? Can I opt out or turn off Google Instant? Why am I not seeing it when I do a Google search?

Answers to those questions and more are below, in our Google Instant User’s Guide.

What Is Google Instant?

Google Instant is a feature that predicts what you’re searching for and shows results as you type. It uses Google’s autocomplete technology to show predicted search terms in a drop-down box, and begins to display search results below the drop-down.


As you continue to type, both the predicted queries and the search results change.

Google says there are three benefits to using Instant: faster searches (it saves 2-5 seconds per search according to Google research), smarter predictions that help guide user searches, and instant results that let the searcher see results without clicking a search button or pressing enter.

Where & When Is Google Instant Available?

Google Instant only works for searchers in the US or who are logged in to a Google account in selected countries outside the US:

Google Instant is starting to roll-out to users on Google domains in the US, UK, France, Germany, Italy, Spain and Russia who use the following browsers: Chrome v5/6, Firefox v3, Safari v5 for Mac and Internet Explorer v8.

If you don’t yet see it, you can try enabling it via this special URL:

Signing in to Google may also help enable it faster, too.

Additionally, it only functions on searches from the Google home page or from the search box at the top of a Google search results page. It doesn’t work

  • from your browser’s search box
  • from the Google Toolbar
  • from iGoogle
  • from other places that access a Google search
  • if you’ve previously disabled Google’s autocomplete feature
  • if you’re using Google SSL search
  • if you’ve disabled Instant (more below on this)

Google also says Instant will be automatically disabled when they can detect that a searcher has a slow internet connection.

Google Instant is not available yet for mobile searches, although Google promises that this is coming soon.

How To Disable Google Instant

Unlike some of its product/feature launches, Google has already built in a way to turn off Google Instant. In fact, they’ve built in two ways:

1.) There’s a small “Instant is on” link to the right of the search box on a search results page. You can click that link to toggle between “on” and “off.”


2.) On your search preferences page, there’s a new option at the bottom for Google Instant.


How Google Instant Works

Google Instant is localized. The predictions and search results that Google Instant displays will change depending on where Google thinks you’re located. In my case, if I begin to search for “hotels,” Google recognizes that I’m based in Washington state. The predicted queries are all state-focused, and even the second organic result is for a Seattle hotel.


Google Instant is personalized. As you can see from the above, that organic search result for Seattle’s Hotel Monaco is a result I’ve visited several times in the past. During today’s announcement, Mayer confirmed that web history and personalized results will flow into Google Instant.

Not Safe For Work content is filtered. Queries that may be considered offensive or lewd don’t work in Google Instant. In these cases, Google stops showing search predictions and search results, and instead displays a “Press Enter to search” message below the search box.


As you might imagine, there are some inconsistencies with how this aspect has been implemented, and no doubt Google will continue to tweak what it considers to be (in)appropriate for inclusion in Google Instant.

Does Google Instant “Kill SEO” or Impact Rankings?

In my opinion: no chance. As long as humans use search engines (like Google) to look for information online, that content will need to be optimized. A well-rounded approach to content development and optimization should actually benefit from Google Instant. More than SEO, it should impact how users search and find valuable information and/or the products and services they’re seeking. Good SEOs will adapt to any changes in searcher behavior that Google Instant brings about.

As for search rankings, Google specifically says that nothing’s changed:

The basics of Google search are the same, including how results are ranked and how Google determines relevant results.

Google Instant may also lead to higher impressions (in Google Webmaster Tools) for your web pages as they move in and out of Google’s search results as people type. For example, my U2 site may appear in the search results as a person types “u2 new” (as in “news” or “new album”), but it will disappear if that query becomes “u2 new zealand concerts.” Google has just published an explanation of how impressions will be counted with Google Instant:

  • the traditional count method – when your site is displayed in search results after a completed search
  • if the user begins to search and then clicks any link on the search results page, including an ad or “related search” suggestion
  • if the user stops typing and the search results appear for at least three seconds

Does Google Instant Ruin My PPC Ads?

As you can see from the screenshots above, targeted pay-per-click ads continue to show as they normally would. You might even notice on the “hotels” screenshot above that Google Instant showed a locally-targeted ad for a hotel in Spokane. Google says ads are now being shown for predicted queries, and the ads will change as searchers continue to type.

Google says ad impressions will only count in three situations (much like the organic impressions listed above):

  • the user clicks anywhere on the page after beginning to type a search query
  • the user chooses one of the predicted queries from Google Instant
  • the user stops typing and search results are shown for at least three seconds

For more on Google Instant and paid search, see our article, Will Google Instant Kill The Long Tail? Also, this AdWords help page may answer your questions about Google Instant.

Final Thoughts

What remains to be seen is how Google users will respond to Instant. And how many will adopt it — i.e., don’t a lot of people search right from their browser search box or from the Google Toolbar?

I’m somewhat suspicious of the claim that it speeds up searches; it seems to me that many users may actually be slowed down as they stop to read and consider all of the predicted queries and search results that are now being displayed automatically. On the other hand, I do think that it may train some users to be smarter searchers.

What are your thoughts on Google Instant? Comments are open.

Related Topics: Channel: SEO | Features: General | Google: Instant | Top News


About The Author: is Editor-In-Chief of Search Engine Land. His news career includes time spent in TV, radio, and print journalism. His web career continues to include a small number of SEO and social media consulting clients, as well as regular speaking engagements at marketing events around the U.S. He recently launched a site dedicated to Google Glass called Glass Almanac and also blogs at Small Business Search Marketing. Matt can be found on Twitter at @MattMcGee and/or on Google Plus. You can read Matt's disclosures on his personal blog.

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  • matthiaswh

    I’m very skeptical about its ability to speed up searches. Many have raised good points about (1) a large majority of users looking at the keyboard while typing, and (2) as you said, searches might spend more time digging through each possible query before finding the right one.

    We won’t be able to truly tell until a few weeks down the road when the novelty of it begins to wear off. Until then a large majority of searches will be affected by searchers toying with it, learning it, and having fun (which could have a big initial impact on PPC impressions before it drops to a normal level).

    Someone needs to develop a browser extension or something to track how much time I spend / save with it!

  • jeroen

    anybody knows what percentage of searchers have a google account and what percentage of that are logged in on average?

  • GaryPaulson

    Sometimes as ‘geeks’ we don’t see how this will help in the real world. I have stood over the shoulder of coworkers who typed in search queries and marveled that they found anything at all.
    Now, with the first word typed, their probable query is just one mouse click away.

  • borisjacquin

    Google’s claim for this enhancement is that it radically improves the speed of search whilst not losing the relevance of the results. While their claim on speed looks undeniable, I do partly disagree on the relevance factor, for Google has omitted one very important aspect of this search “enhancement” – its business purpose. The prevalence of sponsored links in the results is blatant and absolutely shameless. I wrote a blog post on this at – curious to hear your thoughts.

  • kerimorgret

    @matthiaswh I had a friend who also didn’t notice the live updates because she was looking at the keyboard while typing.

    @jeroen In the US, you don’t need to be logged in to see the live updates.

    Google Instant appears to use oq= parameter. Tracking this in Google Analytics (one example is at ) and compare paid search performance of those searches from instant search and those from regular search could be really interesting to see performance differences and query lengths. It doesn’t address issues of impressions with the instant search, however.

  • tchrist

    I do agree with the opinion of borisjacquin. Google Instant won’t necessarily speed up searches. But it will definitely boost revenues of Google due to 2 reasons:

    1) CPCs will go up
    Advertisers will focus on the suggested search terms, because more and more traffic will come through those terms. More competition means higher bids, which increases revenues for Google, but makes it harder for SEM companies to operate profitable.

    2) More clicks on Ads
    The little box with the suggested search terms shifts the search results down the page. As a consequence, less organic search results show up on the screen, and more space is reserved for the ads. This increases the likeliness of a click being made on the ad, simply because more links on the page are for ads. More clicks on ads means again more revenue for Google.

    We’ll see about the other implications ( of Google Instant on SEM agencies.

  • FrankReed

    Matt – It’s so early in this game that it is impossible to predict the outcome on the impact on search. Iill say that with the caveats of needing to be logged into a Google account and doing your search from the Google home page there will be a limited (albeit still really huge) number who are even impacted by this.

    Older folks will likely be turned off because the experience is actually pretty disconcerting. Considering the size of the baby boomer generation and the money they will spend online as they get more comfortable this is a market that for the next 20 years should not be tossed aside just for the cool kids to play.

    Me personally, I initially don’t like the experience. WHile I am not ancient I am not 20 either. It’s just too chaotic for me. Also, I don’t do searches within Google unless I am refining the search after doing it through a toolbar.

    At any rate, plenty left to wait and see on. Great job as usual helping folks get the “lay of the land”. Take care.

  • CarrieEller

    As a subset of good performing long tail terms, Google instant may also impact misspellings negatively. Mispellings are now called out while typing with an underline red squiggly line in the query box. This may elicit a different behavior than the “did you mean” feature from Google classic SERP’s where the searcher may have been less inclined to click the correct spelling from the “did you mean” suggestion. Now, with the misspelling clearly called out in the search box and users are trained from other products to correct spelling with the cue of the red squiggly line, less clicks may occur for less expensive, high conversion rate misspellings.

  • MartinR

    Among other concerns – as a SEO/PPC agency, many of our clients have bids on keywords that may seem “Not Safe For Work” to the engine. It may be useful to filter out content and engine recommendations that are inappropriate, instead of queries altogether. I’d be curious to see how they handle this in the days to come.

  • erocket

    Although Google Instant only affects a number of Google search options at present (e.g. logged into an account in some territories, not searching from the toolbar) I think SEOs need to anticipate a future roll out to all Google search interfaces, and pay close attention accordingly. I’m suprised at the number of SEO commentators not yet writing on what could prove a game changer; I guess they are waiting to see how the dust settles.

    My own thinking is that Google Instant could make head terms more important, and reduce the long tail. For example, say a user is looking for novelty gifts for men, and you have a main Novelty Gifts (ranking for the head term ‘novelty gifts’) and landing page with sub-pages for men, women, etc (ranking for ‘novelty gifts for men’, ‘…for women’, etc).

    Our user starts typing novelty gifts for men, and by the time they get to novelt (sic) the search drop down shows an option for novelty gifts.

    Option 1 – They continue to refine their query in the Google search field.

    Option 2 – They click that early listing, with the intention of exploring the SERPs and possibly refining their search once they visit a website ranked for novelty gifts.

    If they choose option 1 (and I can well imagine some will not least because, as kerimorgret notes, they don’t touch type and stare at the keyboard as they write) this will presumably change nothing. They’ll still enter head terms or long tail terms as they did before.

    If they choose option 2, however, that surely impacts on our SEO strategies? Especially if and when Google roll this out to more or all search interfaces.

    Presumably head terms will become more prevalent, the long tail will reduce, the top SERPs for head terms will become more important and competitive (especially with the first organic listings getting pushed further down the page), and ranking for head terms will become essential to some businesses currently sustained by long tail traffic.

    It could encourage keyword stuffing in the landing page meta info, so that when the result for novelty gifts is displayed, as many as possible of the alternative user intents (for men, for women, for boys, for girls, for the love of god!, etc) are supported – and click through encouraged – by the meta title and description.

    However, this in turn creates keyword cannibalisation issues, as you would still want your Novelty Gifts For Men page to appear in the SERPs when someone does enter the full search term ‘novelty gifts for men’.

    This is going to be fascinating to watch develop. Google certainly keep us on our toes.

  • erocket

    Sorry, that second paragraph in my last post should read:

    My own thinking is that Google Instant could make head terms more important, and reduce the long tail. For example, say a user is looking for novelty gifts for men, and you have a main Novelty Gifts landing page (ranking for the head term ‘novelty gifts’) and sub-pages for men, women, etc (ranking for ‘novelty gifts for men’, ‘…for women’, etc).

    That might make more sense.

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