Google Instant Previews: The First Things You Need To Know

Last week Google rolled out a feature they’re calling Instant Previews. It allows searchers to see a preview of websites appearing in their results without clicking through to the site.
Google Instant Previews

If you conduct business online, Google is an 800 pound gorilla you need to keep tabs on: chances are they deliver a lot of your traffic. There’s still a lot of dust yet to settle, but there are some issues that you should start thinking about now.

Check The Mirror Before You Leave

If you haven’t seen Instant Previews, try it out. It’s pretty handy. It will be particularly helpful for searches where the description appearing in the results doesn’t clearly communicate site content.

But it does give you something else you need to think about: Google Instant Preview is another opportunity to put your “best foot forward” with potential customers. Which means it’s another place you need to be examining your presentation and branding.

Most previews will be too small to discern any significant copy, will your pages still represent your brand effectively? Can you communicate your value proposition in a preview? Is your site design compelling enough to entice users to click through?

Take a look at some examples before you assume that the answer to that question is always “Yes:”

This is what Flash sites look like in Google Instant Preview:
Google Instant Preview of a Flash Site

Even javascript and Ajax appear to the problematic. Here’s, a site that champions web standards, and a product of arguably the best branding machine on the planet:
Google Instant Preview of

Designing pages and using technology that affords a good presentation and user experience is going to payoff for the businesses that start now.

Check Your Numbers Before You Report Them

We at [meta]marketer, and in the wider analytics community, are still investigating what this is going to mean, and Google has been characteristically opaque about how this will affect measurement.

It is clear the “render fetches” by Google that create the preview image are being counted. This means you can expect your visits, visitors, and pageviews and bounce rate to increase. If you use any of those metrics – for example to report to advertisers or investors – you’ll need to take precautions to prevent reporting false results. Keep in mind that the more traffic you receive from organic search, and the more frequently you appear in search rankings, the more skewed this is likely to be.

Unfortunately, knowing that doesn’t lead to an easy solution. This is especially true if you’re using Google Analytics – as most sites are – since it simply doesn’t provide the tools to examine or filter these preview fetches without significant development work – and even then, prospects are limited.

If you’re intrepid, the user agent sting for previews appears to be consistently reported as:

Mozilla/5.0 (en-us) AppleWebKit/525.13 (KHTML, like Gecko; Google Web Preview) Version/3.1 Safari/525.13

but getting that data into your measurement tools and using it is going to take some work. The whole community will be discussing and investigating this problem for the foreseeable future.

But Wait, There’s More

Since it gives you another point of contact with potential visitors, it would be nice to measure whether searchers who see your preview actually click through. After all, the more effectively you use Google, the more relevant traffic you’re going to get. As use of Google Instant Previews increase, your ability to measure and affect preview performance is going to impact your success.

Unfortunately, you can’t. As I said earlier, the “render fetches” that happen when Google is generating previews do count as views and visits in your metrics, so you might think you could somehow use that to determine a clickthrough rate. The problem? Those fetches don’t happen when a searcher previews your site, as you might expect.

In Google’s blog post introducing the feature, Raj Krishnan says:

Once you click the magnifying glass, we load previews for the other results in the background so you can flip through them without waiting.

Which means that your preview is going to be fetched if a user previews any search result appearing on the same result page as your site, even if the searcher doesn’t preview your page. So for now it looks like there’s no way to determine whether a visitor viewed a preview before clicking through to your site.

So, What Do I Do?

The first thing you should do is perform searches for the keyphrases you’re concerned with and check out the previews Google displays for your pages. Don’t check to see if they look accurate, but see if they would entice a searcher to click through to your site. If not, you’ve now got another project on your plate.

Once you’re off and running, you’ll also have to address the analytics problems. Do you need to invest technical resources in mitigating skewed data? Is your analytics platform sophisticated enough to tackle the problem? How does this affect your ability to compare historical site performance? What are you going to do about it?

This entry was posted in customer experience, experience optimization, metrics & analytics. Bookmark the permalink. Follow any comments here with the RSS feed for this post. Both comments and trackbacks are currently closed.


  1. Posted November 17, 2010 at 5:35 pm | Permalink

    Josh. Looks like they are adding synopsis text over the snap if it’s in your search phrase and on the page they snap. Here’s our preview image when I searched ZIPBOX Media. See our image at

    Didn’t Yahoo have preview images a few years ago?

  2. Posted November 20, 2010 at 10:22 am | Permalink

    Yeah Joe, we were just digging into that text callout box a bit the other day, seeing what kinds of variations we could find.

    As I recall, both Yahoo and Google have experimented with preview images in SERPs, but – and I may be wrong, but this is my impression – I think they’ve always been serving up cached images, not page renders fetched on-the-fly at search time. Hence the analytics implications of this implementation.

    Thanks for the comment!

  3. Posted November 25, 2010 at 1:53 am | Permalink

    Could you make clear this point :

    You said and I quote “Which means that your preview is going to be fetched if a user previews any search result appearing on the same result page as your site, even if the searcher doesn’t preview your page”

    Fetching is fine, but will Google automatically count it as a Page View even if the user DIDNT preview my website.

    Also, I see this is also the begining of the end for Flash Homeapges.

One Trackback

  1. By SearchCap: The Day In Search, November 19, 2010 on November 19, 2010 at 3:50 pm

    [...] Google Instant Previews: The First Things You Need To Know, [meta]marketer [...]