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Google's 'instant' search springs keyboard controls

Search watchers fear death by blue arrow

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Google has introduced keyboard navigation to Google Instant, its "real-time" search engine, and though some users quite like it, at least one big-name search-marketing outfit sees it as yet another way the service is hindering search-marketing outfits.

This week, as it expanded Instant to additional Google search services, including Videos, News, Books, Blogs, Updates, and Discussions, Google also gave users the ability to navigate search results with their keyboard alone. "Our aim with Google Instant is to make search faster and easier, and this week we’re rolling out two enhancements to take that a step further," reads a blog post from the company. "First, we’ve introduced keyboard navigation to help you explore your Instant search results using just your keyboard, with no need for a mouse or touchpad."

Google Instant serves up search-results pages as you type, attempting to predict what you're looking for. Search results may refresh with every letter you type in. Basically, it's an extension of Google Suggest. Whereas Suggest, well, suggested possible searches, Instant suggests possible search pages. In certain countries, Google Instant is now the default search engine if you're signed into a Google account — but you do have the power to turn it off.

Keyboard navigation doesn't come into play until you actually hit the enter key, which freezes the search-results page. When you hit enter, Google places a blue arrow next to the top search result — whether its an ad or an "organic" result — and you can then use your keyboard arrow keys to move the blue arrow from one result to another. If you hit enter again, Google opens the page the arrow currently points to. You can see a demonstration here:

Firefox development head Mike Beltzner, for one, quite likes the tool — if not the rest of Google's new contraption. "Screw Google Instant; the keyboard UI on search results page is the real improvement," he says via Twitter. Indeed, the keyboard navigation has very little to do with Google Instant's instantness.

But UK-based search-marketing outfit Greenlight sees things a bit differently. Pay-per-click analyst Owen Browne argues that to the uninitiated, the blue arrow looks like an endorsement of the top link — which may be particularly problematic if that top link is an ad. "The arrow places an emphasis on the top result," he tells The Reg. "For any high-volume search term, that first result is going to be a paid search ad. The effect is that there may be a tendency for anyone below the first result to lose click-through rate."

And that means advertisers below the top result will have to bid even higher to achieve that result. It may also mean, Browne said, that if an ad received the blue-arrow treatment, the user is less likely to click on the first organic result. "We see Google as trying to get users to click on paid ads more that regular results," he said. "The arrow makes it look like Google is endorsing that first ads."

This week, Google also expanded Instant to twelve additional countries, including Canada, Ireland, Mexico, and the Netherlands. ®

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