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Guest comment: Google’s Instant Previews service may mean headaches for internet retailers

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by Matt Whelan

Internet retailing continues to go from strength to strength. However keeping up with the frequent changes Google makes to its products and algorithms is a constant challenge.

Each year the search engine giant releases up to 500 updates and innovations. Whilst some of these create exciting new opportunities for savvy retailers and digital marketers, unfortunately not all of Google’s new developments are welcome news for webmasters and ecommerce teams.

Google’s relentless quest for innovation sometimes comes at a cost, which may be the case with Instant Previews, a new service which launched late last year, enabling users to look within a website without leaving the search engine results page.

Instant Previews generates a screen grab of a webpage the moment the cursor hovers over a link, enabling users to review the website without actually clicking through, which for businesses selling on the web presents something of headache.

Instant Previews offers and speedy and convenient way of browsing multiple websites in an instant which is great news for those retailers which have clean, well laid-out websites, but not such good news for websites which are less kind to the eye.

Today, selling on the web is an extremely sophisticated operation, reliant on intelligent analytics software to track a customers every click and provide rich data vital for understanding how the site is performing. This data can also be integrated with a huge range of CRM software and digital marketing platforms, enabling a retailer to profile their customers and make highly targeted recommendations.

However, Google Instant Previews means that the decision on whether to click to purchase from or browse a specific website now happens on Google rather that the website itself. Without a clear idea of visitor numbers retailers will begin to find that spotting conversion problems may become more difficult, which could lead to declining revenues and skewed stats across the site.

The Preview generated by Google comes from the last time the website was crawled. How visible the site is to Google’s spiders will affect how recent the preview is. Therefore, retailers offering frequently changing on-site promotions may find that Instant Previews has a negative impact on the success and conversion rates of these promotions.

This means that SEO-friendly web architecture is more important to retailers than ever before and I’m sure that as a result of Instant Previews, many will need to make changes to ensure that their most up-to-date promotions are displayed within the Instant Preview window and conversions are kept high.

Another concern thrown up by Google Instant Previews is Flash, as it appears as a ‘puzzle piece’ icon or a black square on previews. This could be leading to confusion for users and sites that feature heavy use of flash content will no doubt be experiencing far lower click through rates as a result.

Multi-variate testing may also be affected by Google Instant Previews as test pages won’t necessarily be displayed in the preview window. This means that data is likely to be skewed towards whatever content is displayed in the preview.

Website design has changed significantly during the last decade, with visually appealing Flash animation making way for a more functional, simplistic approach which listens fully to the needs and requirements of the user first and foremost.

If anything, the launch of Google Instant Previews underlines to importance to retailers of the need to keep site design simplistic, but more importantly, to ensure that search engine visibility at kept at the core of the operation

As well as the technical issues thrown-up by Google’s constant innovations, there are also concerns building about the increasing amount of knowledge and data that the search engine now holds on the web’s biggest retailers and businesses.

Google now holds data from retailers who use its analytics software; it knows what goods are most searched for and what paid search campaigns and keywords yield the greatest results. Add to that the latest Instant Previews data and whilst this may not be a concern for SMEs, I’d suggest that the Amazons of this world may have reason to be concerned about the data Google has and how this could be applied by them to competitive businesses. 

There are also rumors gaining pace that Google is looking to launch its own comparison site as it moves further into areas previously owned by the retailers themselves.

At the end of the day any changes made by Google will ultimately be in its own best interests, which is why search marketing now plays such a significant role in manipulating the search results and ensuring good rankings.

Matt Whelan is PPC director at Guava. Guava will be presenting at Internet Retailing Expo in March, on Managing Your Brand Online.

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