When Google announced this morning that it would be delivering search results to users in real time as they type a query, it rightfully generated quite a bit of chatter and intrigue in the tech world and beyond.

The changes are certain to fundamentally change the way people interact with the world’s biggest search engine. But what is less clear is how this game-changing update will affect search engine optimization and search traffic referrals to Websites.

The Impact on Speed, Refining Searches and the “Long Tail” of Search

Google Instant does two things: it returns results more quickly and it predicts search queries as the user types.

While it’s too early to predict the implications of this with any certainty, a few speculations come to mind. For one, searching on Google is going to become a much speedier process for the end user, who may now be less likely than ever to click through to the second page of results. Searchers will also be able to more quickly refine their search terms on the fly, which could either prove to be good or bad for site owners.

“It seems to me that the top three rankings will get even more value,” says Ian Lurie, President of Portent Interactive and blogger at Conversation Marketing. “Also, long-tail search is going to be more important, since folks can just keep typing until they see what they want.”

On the other hand, John Ellis at Search Engine Land wondered earlier if Google Instant would “kill the long tail” of paid search advertising by making it less worthwhile to bid on more specific, long tail keywords.

How the User Experience Will Change

According to Avichal Garg, former Product Manager of Search Quality at Google, the impact of Google Instant on SEO and search performance will come as a result of changes in the user experience, not the ranking algorithm, per se.

He cites query construction patterns, click patterns, page scanning behavior and the ease of making search query refinements (re-searching) as examples of user behaviors that are likely to be different from here on out.

“It will have a tremendous impact,” says Garg. “User behavior will change. And good SEO is all about understanding end user behavior.”

Will It Impact Traffic to My Site?

For insight into whether the volume of search traffic to one’s site will change, look no further than the Google’s own Webmaster Central Blog, which advises site owners that they “may notice some changes in your search queries data due to the launch of Google Instant.” The post goes on to explain that the number of impressions for many search queries is likely to increase. In other words, the number of times a given site is displayed in results (whether they’re clicked or not) is bound to go up, since users no longer need even finish typing a search query before the results show up.

Google’s Matt Cutts Chimes In

Perhaps the most insightful commentary on Google Instant’s potential impact on SEO came in a blog post from Goolger Matt Cutts a few hours after the company’s announcement:

“The search results will remain the same for a query, but it’s possible that people will learn to search differently over time. For example, I was recently researching a congressperson. With Google Instant, it was more visible to me that this congressperson had proposed an energy plan, so I refined my search to learn more, and quickly found myself reading a post on the congressperson’s blog that had been on page 2 of the search results.”

Are you concerned about how Google Instant might impact your site’s visibility on Google? What do you think about the new feature in general? Leave your thoughts in the comments.