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Google Instant: Interactive Searching
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Posted On September 16, 2010


Last week, Google held a “press event” to unveil the new, results-as-you-type Google Instant. Enabled by default for Google searchers in the U.S., the U.K., France, Germany, Italy, Spain, and Russia (if using a modern browser and either logged in to their account or using Google.com), Google Instant starts showing results, not instantaneously, but very quickly as soon as the first letter of a search is typed. With each subsequent letter typed, the results (and the search suggestions) change. Marissa Mayer, Google’s vice president of search products and user experience, says that “Google Instant is a new way to search.” Not only do the results appear shortly after just typing one letter, but the first search suggestion also often displays (in gray letters) within the search box itself. The actual results displayed are ones for the full suggested search or if none is displayed in the box, for the first listed suggested search.

Mayer emphasizes the interactivity of Google Instant that “gets your search results at you type and brings them to you and streams those results to your computer, so the search is entirely interactive the whole time you’re typing.” One driving force behind Google’s work on Instant is to help reduce the time it takes a user to enter a search. The company claims that by “predicting your search and showing results before you finish typing, Google Instant can save 2 - 5 seconds per search.” That is, assuming that any of the suggestions is what the searcher wants.

To Instant or Not to Instant

Unlike some other new initiatives that Google has launched in the past, like left-hand search facets released in May, users can turn Google Instant off if they wish. Directly to the right of the search box, Google displays “Instant is on” followed by a small drop-down arrow. Click the arrow or link to see an option to turn Instant off. The drop-down language highlights the difference in approaches. On is described as “type to search” while Off is “press Enter to search.” The drop-down menu also links to additional promotional information. Google Instant can also be turned off in the Search Settings. If Instant is turned off, Google mostly goes back to the way it used to be.

Another alternative to turn off the interactive display is to use what Google defines as “an offensive or lewd word” at the beginning of the query. Then all results vanish, replaced by the simple message “Press Enter to Search.” While no list of these trigger words is available, Google claims that “autocomplete excludes certain terms related to pornography, violence, and hate speech.” Certain advanced limits have the same effect. Using site: or filetype: within a search stops the interactive display, and the searcher must click the search button or press enter to search.

Keyboard Navigation

With the suggestions often appearing in the search box itself, understanding how to navigate these suggestions helps get the correct results. Navigation works best with the keyboard. The grayed-out suggestion in the search box can be selected by simply pressing the Tab key, even though with the results appearing automatically, there may not be any need to use it. For the searcher who does not want the initial grayed-out suggestion, the down arrow key navigates to the other five suggestions.

As with typing, simply scrolling through the suggestions using the arrow keys causes the results to change interactively with each new suggestion. On the right side of the highlighted suggestion, Google even adds an “I’m Feeling Lucky” link. Use the right arrow to select that and go directly to the top result.

Strangely enough, mousing over any of the search suggestions will not change the search results. Searchers can use the mouse to select a suggestion, but then must press Enter or use the arrow keys to see the results.

Changes

For those who watch Google closely and pay attention to the details, Instant is a major change. Yet many other searchers may not notice the change. According to Google’s Ben Gomes, distinguished engineer and one who worked on Instant: “We were actually surprised at how well this worked—most people in our studies didn’t even notice that anything had changed.”

Beyond the more obvious (to some of us) changes to the search suggestions and the interactive results, other less obvious changes have come along with Instant. For example, the search box on the bottom is gone. Turn Instant off, and the bottom of the results page search box is back.

Another interesting by-product of the change from search suggestions to Google Instant is that the number of suggestions has been reduced from ten to five. Additional information that Google put into the search suggestion box, such as brief weather reports, featured sites, and definitions, gets moved below the suggestion box and to the top of the changing results. Try a search on weather san fran with Google Instant turned on and then turned off to see the difference.

With the Instant On/Off options to the right of the search box, the advanced search link has been moved to just below the suggestions, on the right. As the suggestions change, that can cause the advanced search link (and the number of results) to move up and down a bit, and that can make it more difficult to get to the link. In addition, as Gary Price writes, using “advanced search requires the user to click search or hit the enter button.” So the advanced search does not support Instant. Gary also points out that when using Instant, searchers will only get 10 results at a time. Trying to choose any higher number through the search settings makes no difference. Google Operating System points out even more missing features.

The search suggestions have changed as well, beyond just being reduced in number. Google claims they now make “smarter predictions” for the query being typed. Like most search results, the suggestions are customized based on geolocation (Google guessing your location) and personalization based on past search history even when not logged in. So each searcher may get quite different suggestions.

The Daily Beast’s Thomas E. Weber highlights one potential business reason for the Instant push. “In our tests of Google Instant at the Daily Beast, it quickly became clear that the time savings comes with a price: lots and lots of ads. . . . Over the course of our search testing, Google Instant displayed an average of 13.6 ads for each of our test searches—compared with 2.2 if we had typed in our queries with the traditional Google.”

As with other newly launched endeavors, Google will likely continue to make changes and tweak the way Instant works. Gomes describes the overall change: “With Instant we’ve turned search from a static HTML page into an AJAX application, just as we did with Google Maps and Gmail.”

This is an amazing engineering feat, considering the huge volume of traffic Google must manage. Its future, though, will depend more on how the mass of Google users respond to it, and whether it does indeed save them time or ends up causing greater confusion.


Greg R. Notess is the internet columnist for ONLINE and the author of Teaching Web Search Skills (www.notess.com/teaching) and SearchEngineShowdown.com.

Email Greg R. Notess
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