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Google Instant – more searches, less thought

Sergey Brin gets in your head

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Analysis Google is on a mission to make web search as fast as the human brain will allow. On Wednesday morning in San Francisco, as she unveiled Google Instant, a radical overhaul of the company's search engine that updates search results as you type, uber-Googler Marissa Mayer called it "search at the speed of thought." We can safely classify that as an exaggeration for effect, but Mayer's bon mot at least gets to the heart of Google's intentions.

According to Google, the average search takes about 25 seconds, and about 24 of those tick by while you're either typing keywords or deciding which result to choose. In recent years, the company has worked on myriad fronts to improve the speed of the server, networking, and browser technologies that sit between those two very human moments. But with such technologies accounting for a small minority of search times, it's also pushing to speed human responses through changes to its user interface. The addition of Google Suggest — the "auto-complete" tool that suggests searches as you type — is just one example.

But Mayer lamented that Suggest is still restricted by the "physical speed of typing" and "the physical speed of thinking." Google Instant is an effort to go even faster, with Mayer implying it can break through those "physical" barriers.

She claimed that Google Instant will take 2 to 5 seconds off of every search. And she said that for every passing second, its army of searchers will save a total of 11 hours. But you have to wonder if, in increasing speed, Google is also pushing users even further towards the lowest common denominator of search results. You have to wonder if they're indeed removing some of the thought from search — and some free thought at that.

Google Instant

Countless questions also remain about how this will effect Google's back-end infrastructure, its search ads system, and — yes — the efforts of search engine optimizers. Google's line is that Instant search isn't much of a problem for any of this. But although the company is likely prepared to handle the increased number of impressions, today's web chatter indicates that advertisers and SEOs are bracing for some rather significant changes to the way they do business.

In the Google mind, Instant search is merely a faster means of getting you where you already want to go. Whereas Google Suggest suggests possible searches as you type, Google Instant suggests entire pages of results. It may suggest results in response to a single letter. "W" delivers search results for "weather." "New york" — or even "new" followed by a space — delivers results for "New York Times."

Asked if users will now be more inclined to click on what Google considers the relevant search results, Google distinguished engineer Ben Gomes said no. "I'm not going to go to the New York Times just because it's suggested," he told two reporters following the unveiling of the new search setup. "We're trying to help you. If you type 'New York,' that's the most likely thing you want. But it's not going to change what you're looking for.

"When a result actually matches your intent, people will look at it. If it doesn't match your intent, they don't really pay attention to it. They have an idea in their brain and they want to find a match for that."

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