Google Instant Is Anything But a Time-Saver

At a press event in San Francisco this week, Google introduced Google Instant, an overhaul of its core search engine that brings up location- and history-sensitive search results even before you’ve finished typing your query. If you live in San Francisco and you type “s-a-u,” for example, Google Instant will make an educated guess that you’re searching for Sausalito, and will bring up a whole page of results about the picturesque waterfront community. If you lived in Napa, I imagine that it would bring up “sauvignon blanc,” and if you lived in Chicago, it would probably be “sausage.”

Google claims that the new feature is designed to make Web searches more efficient, by offering interactive feedback for partial queries—“faster than the speed of type,” as the company puts it. If you really were searching for Sausalito or sauvignon blanc or sausage, after all, you’d be done.

But I have my suspicions. I’ve been testing the new feature and talking to people in the search engine optimization business—folks who spend their whole day advising Web publishers and e-retailers on how people react to search result rankings, and how to elicit free traffic from Google and other search engines. They have some interesting thoughts about the probable repercussions from this latest change in the way Google presents search results.

One of the outcomes—and I think it’s likely—could be that you’ll actually spend more time using Google than before. Another could be a huge increase in competition among users of Google’s AdWords search advertising platform for common keywords—leading inevitably to more revenue for Google, but not necessarily to more traffic for the majority of advertisers.

As a caveat, I should say that none of these effects are likely to set in right away. For one thing, the Instant feature is being rolled out gradually, so it’s not available in all regions yet. It doesn’t work for searches from mobile devices. And most importantly, it doesn’t work for searches from the browser toolbar, where more and more people enter search terms. In my own case, I never actually go to, because Google lets me initiate searches directly from the Chrome “Omnibox,” the same place where I type in URLs. People who use the search boxes on Firefox or other browsers are in the same boat. Google would have to rebuild Chrome or come up with Instant plugins for Firefox and other browsers in order to make instant search available from these locations. (Google’s Marissa Mayer said at the Google Instant launch event that the feature would be coming to browser toolbars “in the next few months.”)

Google InstantSo it’s too early to get all worked up about Google Instant. But it is fun to speculate about the forces at work here, and which way they might be pushing. In this business, the stakes are so large—to wit, Google’s 70-plus-percent share of the search market, and its $23 billion in advertising revenue in 2009—that nothing happens by accident, and even seemingly small changes in the way the search engine works can have outsize effects.

1. The Wikipedia-Facebook Theory

There’s a great edition of the geek webcomic XKCD called “The Problem with Wikipedia.” It shows a diagram starting with the query “Tacoma Narrows Bridge.” This leads to the articles on “Suspension Bridge” and “Structural Collapse,” which, after “Three Hours of Fascinated Clicking,” leads—naturally—to “William Howard Taft,” “Lesbianism in Erotica,” and “Batman.”

The point being that the Web is a magical garden of enticing distractions. Google has said that when Google Instant is switched on, each query results in the delivery of five to seven times as many result pages. (On their way from “S” to “Sausage,” for example, San Franciscans will see … Next Page »

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Wade Roush is a contributing editor at Xconomy. Follow @wroush

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