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Google pulls trigger on 'Instant' search engine

Results rejig as you type

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Updated Update: This story has been continually updated with additional info from Google's press event.

Google has unveiled what it calls Google Instant, a "streaming" version of its search engine that rejigs results pages in "real-time" as you type individual characters into its search box.

"Today's announcement does represent what we believe is a fundamental shift in search," Google vice president of search products and user experience Marissa Mayer said Wednesday morning during a press event at the Museum of Modern Art in San Francisco, California.

She called Google Instant "search at the speed of thought." According to Google, the setup will save users 2 to 5 seconds per search. And for every second that goes by, Google says, it will save 11 hours of search time across the company's entire user base.

In essence, the company has taken its familiar "Suggest" tool one step further. Rather than merely suggesting searches as you type, it suggests entire pages of results. The change is meant to improve the speed of the search engine, to get users to what they're looking for faster. As today's event began, Google public relations man Gabriel Stricker set the stage by pointing to yesterday's speech in Berlin from Google chief executive Eric Schmidt. "Never underestimate the importance of fast," he said.

The service suggests results even as you type in a single letter. Google senior staff engineer Othar Hansson demonstrated the tool by typing a single "w" into Google, and this brought up results for "weather." Google's prediction – in this case "weather" – is spelled out in gray as the letters you actually type appear in black.

If you press the search button, Google will show the results that apply only to the characters you actually keyed in.

The setup also includes a "scroll to search" tool. Google still gives you suggested queries below the search box, and as you scroll through this, results will automatically update as well. Currently, when it makes suggestions, Google displays five – and exactly five – possibilities.

If you're on a low bandwidth connection, Google will automatically turn the service off and revert to good old fashioned results pages – which wait for you to hit enter. You can also turn off the instant results on your own.

The service will be rolled out in the US today. But it will only be available to user who are logged into their Google accounts. The UK, France, Italy, Germany, Spain, and Russia will follow within the week. It's available for Google's Chrome browser, Mozilla's Firefox, Apple's Safari, and Microsoft's Internet Explorer 8. Google also said that it is working to build the technology into Google Chrome. This will arrive "in the coming months."

The setup is AJAX-based, following in the footsteps of Google applications such as Gmail and Google Maps. Google is also working to get its "Instant" search onto mobile phones. Hansson demoed the mobile version and said it would arrive this fall.

Last month, the streaming setup was tested with certain users, but Google declined to say whether it would be rolled out to world+dog. A video of one test was captured here:

Earlier today, Google tweaked its home page in a hint of what was coming. When you visited the page, the familiar Google logo – the "doodle" in Mountain View parlance – appeared in an unfamiliar gray, and the colors filled in as you typed into the search box.

"Boisterous doodle today, Maybe it's excited about the week ahead..." Google said via Twitter yesterday. "Our doodle is dressing up in its brightest colors for something exciting coming very soon..."

Google has posted a video profiling the technology here:

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