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Online businesses are being warned to prepare to vary their SEO strategies yet again, with Google launching an additional update for its search results page which allows users to view a rapid sample screenshot of every listed website.

This change could actually alter how businesses come up to online search rankings, but also impacts design. The attribute comes after Google has introduced both the Instant and Google Places updates in an attempt to pack in as a lots of information as possible into the home page.

"For a lot of Web 2.0 companies, their image is a part of their brand, and so this could be an important change for them," Datalink marketing director Sean Fishlock says.

Google says the update will be rolling out to 100% of users around the world over the next few days, including Australia. The company argues the new attribute will make it easier and faster for users to find what they desire.

"Instant Previews provides a graphic overview of a search result and highlights the most appropriate sections, making finding the right page as quick and easy as flipping through a magazine," the company said in a blog post.

The company references testing which shows users of Instant Previews are 5% more likely to be fulfilled with the results they click on.

"Instant Previews can be helpful for a lot of kinds of tasks. For example, say you looked at a page before and need to find it again — with a preview, you can tell if any of the results look familiar. Or perhaps you're looking for an official website — look for a logo and formal style and you'll probably be able to recognize it."

The update doesn't actually change the work of the search results page. Users still search the way they always have, by typing a query into the text box and then pressing enter.

But as users scroll down the results and highlight each result with their mouse, they will notice a pop-up box come alongside each result. In this pop box Google will offer a simply screenshot of the site's front page.

Google also said this feature only works because of speed, noting that previews are usually identified in under one-tenth of a second. "Once you click the magnifying glass, we load previews for the other results in the background so you can flip through them without waiting."

Of course, this change has big ramifications for SMEs operating online. Experts warn that not only will design now become a critical factor in making sure click-through rates remain the same, but AdWord users could also be affected.

"For example, colours, logo positions/size and site layout... are just some of the things that will need to be taken into consideration when building landing pages," Greenlight pay per click manager Jim Warren said overnight.

"You can be sure a negative reaction to a site layout or colour design of a website in Quick View would have an effect on AdWords users percentage click-through rates, something they have not had to worry about in the past."

Fishlock agrees, and says design – which until now hasn't been an issue in generating traffic from Google – could now become more of a crucial part of the SEO process.

"Quite possibly you could see sites with lower rankings actually getting higher clicks, but it obviously depends on the client," he says.

"There are only certain amounts of information people are able to tell without clicking on a site and seeing the full size image. So there are different usability aspects here, because not every site uses the bold, front page approach. Quite possibly it could change some approaches."

Warren also warns these changes will make the SEO game even harder for SMEs, given that rankings are no longer the indicator of whether a site is actually relevant or not. He argues that a well-designed site ranking in third place will no longer have as much of a inconvenience against the two sites ranked above it.

"The page ranking in third could be of much higher quality and may actually be what users are looking for. Google sees time and time again that previews of two results are viewed, but the site in third gets 90% of clicks – a clear sign it is what users are looking for."

Monte Heubsch, chief executive of SEO firm Aussieweb, warns businesses may see a drop in click-through rates if they aren't putting enough emphasis on their design.

"This is going to require businesses to work on first impressions. If they don't like what they see, they're gone. It's like dating in that sense. If a girl takes one look at you and doesn't like you, she'll give you the flick."

"Google is doing a lot of disruptive stuff now that could impact on clicks. As it starts bringing in data with Google Places and so on, people are actually going to stop clicking on links less and less if you can actually get the information beforehand. Businesses need to be aware of that."

By: Patrick Stafford

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