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Google Answers Searches Before You're Finished Asking

Google Answers Searches Before You're Finished Asking

With its new Google Instant feature, the search king will attempt to answer users' queries before they're even finished telling it what they want to know about. Predictive analysis guesses what the user is about to type based on the first few letters, and a new search is immediately executed. Google says it'll save users time; critics call it a gimmick at best and a nuisance at worst.

By Richard Adhikari
09/08/10 1:56 PM PT

Google on Wednesday announced what it says are even faster Web search capabilities in its new "Google Instant" service.

Billed as "search before you type," the new feature uses predictive analysis to search the Web for the most likely matches as the user is typing in a query and streams results in real time according to its predictions.

This is yet another move in the ongoing war over online search between the dominant players -- Google on the one hand and the Microsoft/Yahoo team on the other.

Whether or not users will see any tangible benefits from this speeded-up search remains to be seen.

About Google Instant

Google Instant dynamically displays relevant search results while users type their queries so they can click through to the Web content they need more quickly. It predicts the rest of a user's query in light gray text before the user finishes typing. If the prediction is correct, the user can stop typing, scroll down and find the information she or he is looking for.

For instance, if a user simply types the letter "n" into the search field, gray letters will instantly fill out the rest of the field to spell "netflix," and the top search results for that company will be immediately displayed. Other alternatives like "nordstrom," "nko" and "npr" will appear below the search bar.

If the user continues by adding an "i," the word "nissan" appears in gray, accompanied by instant search results for that company. Alternatives like "nike" and "nintendo" appear below the search bar.

The user can continue by typing whatever search terms he or she wishes or clicking on something that's been automatically presented.

New caching systems, the ability to adaptively control the rate at which Google displays results pages, and optimization of page-rendering JavaScript to help Web browsers keep up with the rest of the system had to be applied to enable Google Instant, according to a blog post by Marissa Mayer, Google's vice president of search products and user experience.

Users of the Google Chrome, Firefox, Safari and Internet Explorer 8 browsers will access and use Google Instant when they get onto Google.com. The service is being rolled out in the United States first. It will also be available to users in France, Germany, Italy, Russia, Spain and the United Kingdom who are signed-in and have browsers that can handle the Instant service. Google will roll out the service to other countries and platforms over time.

Google's tests show the Instant service saves the average searcher two to five seconds per search.

"With Google Instant, we estimate that we'll save our users 11 hours with each passing second," Mayer wrote.

The Time Tunnel

"Save users 11 hours per second?" asked Charles King, principal analyst at Pund-IT. "So we're going back in time?"

Google searches are already speedy -- several searches on Google.com using broad terms such as "dog food" returned results in between 1.1 and 2.7 seconds, and it's difficult to see how much more time can be saved on those searches.

"Are we talking about search queries or about setting a new world record in a foot race?" asked Laura DiDio, principal at ITIC. "How fast to you need to have search go?" she asked.

Google Instant "is all just hype," DiDio told TechNewsWorld. "Google's trying to get its name in the news and keep it there," she added.

Speed Demon

Google had previously demonstrated search-as-you-type, but that wasn't enough, Mayer wrote.

"Our search-as-you-type demos were thought-provoking -- fun, fast and interactive -- but fundamentally flawed. Why? Because you don't really want search-as-you type," she wrote. "You really want search-before-you-type -- that is, you want results for the most likely search given what you have already typed."

Google Instant could be a competitive feature in certain types of user experience, Charles King, principal analyst at Pund-IT, told TechNewsWorld.

"For example, if you were performing a search on a mobile device where the typing is considerably more cumbersome than it is on a standard keyboard, having predictive search could be a big help," King said.

However, that feature might actually lead to a backlash, ITIC's DiDio pointed out.

"I've already got that predictive feature on my cellphone, and half the time when I'm typing a text message the system's predictions don't match what I intend to type," DiDio said. "You can spend more time correcting the predictions than you would just typing your message."

Outrunning the Competition

Google Instant looks to be yet another move in the battle for dominance between Google on the one hand and the Microsoft/Yahoo partnership on the other.

Some highlights of that battle: Back in December, both parties teamed up with Twitter for real-time search. In addition, Google's and Microsoft's Bing search engines both focused on visual search, and Bing teamed up with Wolfram Alpha in the math and health areas.

Google later brought out a beta of Caffeine, its new Web indexing system,, which it completed in June. It also unveiled a beta of Social Search.

Bing is gaining ground against Google, adding 8 percent market share in June. Further, Microsoft and Yahoo announced last month that Microsoft Adcenter would power all paid search ads on Yahoo Search in the United states and Canada.

Given all this, it's no surprise that Google came up with something to maintain its dominance in the online search market. That new feature doesn't have to be earth-shaking because Google's still the king of the hill.

"Google is dominant, so all it needs to do is be good enough," Rob Enderle, principal analyst at the Enderle Group, told TechNewsWorld. "This should help it hold users and maybe get some recent defectors back if people like what they see," Enderle opined.

Google did not respond to a request for comment by press time.


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