Instant Previews on Google – will reduce traffic but improve bounce-rates

By Matt Cornock

This post quickly explains what Google Instant Preview is and how web designers should make the most of this new feature. Instant Preview shows a small screen grab of a website when clicking on the magnifying glass icon next to the search result title (see below).

Instant Preview is nothing new

Having a visual preview of a website embedded within search results is not new. Ask.com did this for a while and several smaller search engines still do. Their previews were normally small 100x100px squares which didn’t really indicate the content, hence were of little use to the user. However, Google’s visual previews are much larger and even display ‘beyond the fold’ of the page:

Google Instant Preview example showing preview popup and magnifying glass preview icon

Beyond the fold and orange boxes

Clearly the biggest benefit of Google’s implementation of website preview is the displaying of an entire web page, rather than just the first X pixels. This means that users can get an impression of a whole web page at a glance. This is crucial when the content a user may be interested in is located near the bottom of the page. Google highlights the extract shown on the results page in the preview using an orange box. Not only then does the user have an impression of the website, but also where the content they’re interested in features on the webpage. If users reguarly use this feature, then surely they will become more efficient searchers, quickly skimming through search results pages without the need to go to these websites themselves… oh but there’s the problem.

Reduced traffic to websites, but better bounce rates

A lot of traffic to websites comes through search results. A high proportion of this traffic is through misrepresented search results, where the search result gives the user one impression of a website, though in reality the website is about something entirely inappropriate for that user. It is clear that the Instant Preview is going to be of significant benefit to the casual searcher and a significant disadvantage to websites which goad users into coming to their site, even though what they then find there is not what they need.

However, this process of pulling users to websites they really don’t need, actually results in a ‘bounce’. A bounce is where a user visits a webpage and within a few seconds decides that that webpage is not right for them, so bounces back to the previous page (results page). Bounce rates are important metrics in web analysis as they are used by organisations to judge whether their search result promotion, advert or incoming links are described acurately to meet users expectations. If the general footfall of user traffic is reduced because users are filtering off irrelevant websites before they even visit, then bounce rates must improve – a fewer proportion of users bounce.

The clear benefit is that bandwidth isn’t wasted on bouncing users and the users that do visit know what they want. However, the downside is that websites lose the casual visitor and any webpage space dedicated to luring these casual visitors into the site would become wasted. This could mean the end of parked domain sites lurking at the top of Google results pages, if users using Instant Preview spot that the website contains no valuable content. With reduced click-thru (possibly) feeding into Google’s page rank algorithm, there is potential for a big shake up of results listings.

What about copyright or IPR

I’m only raising this here, as I’m sure a number of people will also start talking about the Intellectual Property Rights (IPR) issues of Google taking previews of websites. No doubt they will argue copyright infringement and as a result reduced traffic to their website. All I can say to that is, well, if its on the internet, someone, somewhere will have probably copied it before and used it for their own personal gain. So, instead of fighting this, you may as well embrace it.

How can websites take advantage of the Instant Preview

First impressions of a webpage are now more important than ever. Google’s Instant Preview actually provides web designers the opportunity to stand out from the crowd by making sure that their webpages are visually appealing and the design complements the overall message that the organisation wants to display.

As the previews are small, large sections of the page dedicated to the organisation’s key elements will stand out. Thankfully the Instant Preview for my homepage makes it clear that my website has a blog and photos – the focus and purpose of my site. If you look at another of my previews, for one of my longer blog articles, users will see that there’s actually a lot of text content which they can read through. However, if they’re looking for something short and snappy, then perhaps my blog posts won’t suit them.

You can appreciate that when comparing results’ previews, first impressions are going to mean a lot to the end user. A site that looks dated or cluttered is not going to grab the attention of users using Instant Preview. Similarly, any sites still dependent on flash interfaces where the first page is simply an ‘Enter’ link is again not going to convey much to the user. I’m hoping therefore that the Instant Preview may encourage web designers to become more user-focused on their homepages and hence lead to better usability on their landing pages.

Conclusion

To take full advantage of Instant Preview, websites will need to think both in terms of content and usable design. Yes, Instant Preview could decrease visitor hits, but will dramatically improve bounce rates and could open new opportunities to websites who present their material in way that is instantly recognisable by users. It will also, hopefully, reduce the number of parked domain landing pages lurking at the top of the Google results page system.

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