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Google Instant 'invented by Yahoo! in 2005'

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A former Yahoo! product manager has claimed that Google Instant was invented by Yahoo! in 2005.

In a blog post, former Yahoo! search product manager Steven Hood points out that in 2005, the company rolled out to tool known as Live Search, an AJAX-based online application remarkably similar to Google Instant.

"[Google Instant] is a fundamental change to a user interaction model that’s been largely unchallenged for years," Hood writes. "By all accounts this is a bold and brave innovation. Which is why it may surprise you to learn that Google Instant is actually five years old. Yahoo built it back in 2005."

Hood led a team that cooked up Yahoo!'s first AJAX applications, and one of these – "our biggest project and crowning achievement," he says – was LiveSearch, an engine that provided search suggestions and served up results pages in "real-time" as you typed. "It was almost exactly the same product as Google Instant," Hood claims.

But there are differences. LiveSearch's search suggestions were displayed down the left-hand side of the page, rather than in a window below the search box. "This was to avoid the distraction of shifting the result set down the screen as the user typed," Hood explains. And he acknowledges that Yahoo!'s suggestions likely weren't as accurate as Google's. But, he adds, "they were still quite good."

You can see the tool in action here:

As the video indicates, the service wasn't actually launched on Yahoo! proper. It was served up from AllTheWeb, a standalone search site that Yahoo! had purchased a few years before. "Yahoo would not let us ship LiveSearch on yahoo.com or as a part of Yahoo’s search engine," Hood says.

"You have to remember that, at the time, Yahoo’s search business was doing just well enough that there was very little institutional appetite for product risk. As a result, 'big' or disruptive ideas were too often left to whither on the vine. By focusing on the local maximum, Yahoo unwittingly traded innovation for incremental optimization."

Hood indicates that Yahoo! never rolled out the application on its main search engine in part because few people actually used it at AllTheWeb. But, he says, low usage wasn't necessarily a reflection of the tool's utility. "Usage data from this flawed test was used to internally evaluate its success in comparison to the model it was actually trying to disrupt. Lacking high-level support for its larger vision and starved for resources, LiveSearch was understandably put out to pasture."

What Yahoo! lacked, Hood says, is the "organizational courage" Google showed in launching Google Instant on its main search engine. But he passes over the fact that "courage" aside, Google had to ensure that it's infrastructure could handle the service. If you merely launch such a service on a relatively small site like AllTheWeb, you don't have quite the same mountain to climb.

As Google distinguished engineer Ben Gomes and senior staff engineer Othar Janssen explained on Wednesday in launching Google Instant, the company not only increased back-end capacity but also took pains to streamline the Instant system so that it wouldn't create the back-end load you might expect. This involved deploying new caches that can handle high request rates, adding "user-state data" to the Google back-end that keeps track of the results pages already shown to users, and optimizing JavaScript code so that browsers could keep up.

But even if you put such optimizations aside, Google – as you might expect – doesn't agree with Hood's claim. "Many companies have experimented with variations of the idea of 'instantly' serving search results, but no company has offered features quite like this," a company spokesman told us. "Google Instant offers a unique model with a full page of search results that updates dynamically based on query predictions. We’ve developed a combination of features that make search faster for everyone, which is why we’re making Instant a core part of search."

On Wednesday, Gomes said that the Google Instant project began about a year ago. Speaking with The Reg, he indicated the idea came for him and a small group of other Googlers, but he gave a nod to existing services. "It was an idea several of us had been talking about: The whole notion of giving you more feedback as you type a query," he said. "We had that idea, and we had seen demos of search engines that give you searches as you type. But they didn't really work. That idea had been in the air for awhile, and I had the notion that there is a way to make this work."

A research group was started to look into the possibilities. It began with a single engineer, and the number of engineers working on the product doubled about every six weeks. Gomes discusses the design process in broad strokes here.

Whatever you think of Google Instant, it's undoubtedly an impressive engineering feat. But Steven Hood wants you to know that although Google gets the headlines nowadays, Yahoo! was an innovator as well. "I can tell you first-hand that there was no shortage of amazing ideas inside those walls, some of them way cooler and more disruptive than LiveSearch. Nor was there any shortage of smart, driven, and creative people on the payroll," he says.

"[Google] clearly demonstrated that it still has the organizational courage to challenge its own preconceptions," he says. "As I read the coverage and play with Google Instant, I can’t help but wonder how things might have gone if Yahoo had shared this trait five years ago. It could have been pretty damn great." ®

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