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 freelance science and technology journalist and the producer and host of the podcast Soonish. Follow @soonishpodcast

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21 responses to “Google Instant Is Anything But a Time-Saver”

  1. Interesting, compelling and distracting. At this juncture in my personal opinion that Google Instant may limit people to pull up many unwanted results as mentioned in the post. Realistically I am curious to see if this new unveiling will last more than a few months time before it is tanked. I am excited to see what type of reviews Google Instant receives from more and more users over the next few weeks.

  2. Mark says:

    I have left it on for fun but I do most of my searching through the omnibox. Google instant is more or less an extension of Google suggest. It was cute and fun to see what they predicted and what a majority of the world was searching for when they type these similar words. Now, it actually shows you the websites that are associated with it.

    Yet, I find myself just more distracted from it. 99% of my search, I know what I’m looking for. When I’m bored, some times I peruse the search results, but even here its more directed.

  3. I just think that it adds zero value to my life and is just a mind-numbing, time-saving gimmick:

  4. Loran Bosini says:

    If people really knew who Google passes search forensics on to, they’d seek out all Google-assisted entities and block further traffic to/from them.

  5. Albert says:

    Google Instant is a bloody nuisance, and particularly annoying since it is active by default. Loran Bosini’s comment is quite timely; I recently read a very disturbing commentary on this at:

  6. Lily says:

    It’ll take getting used too – just like being able to search from the address bar.

  7. dennis teel says:

    i like it..i don’t understand how it could be annoying to anyone.i had to get used to the in-action.or the action of NOT hitting enter automatically after THAT was getting annoying.i finally have mastered it.i don’t hit enter thinks it’s one of those features that will affect a user in the way that they’ll either leave instant on or off at all times and not be switching back and forth/.

  8. Samuel Tebrien says:

    You don’t need google instance to be turned on to for words to appear before you finish typing them. You can turn it off and there is no difference.
    Its a scam pulled by Google. It used to be you could input how searchs/websites you wanted to appear per page but know if your not loggined into a google account you only see 10 search reults/websites. It use to be present to 20 wesites/search results but know its only 10.
    Know i also heard that even if your loggined in the per page search number doesn’t save but I haven’t tried that yet.
    The reason they want this is so that websites can pay more for advertisement on their search engines since clicking pages takes too long search thru. Its favoring huge websites and throwing small website way behind so people don’t see it.
    Besides this its only letting people who type slow click on popular search results.

  9. Samuel Tebrien says:

    so know you can turn instance off without losing the popular search words that come up before you finishing typing.

  10. Hans says:

    I just think that it adds zero value to my life and is just a mind-numbing, time-saving gimmick

  11. TV-Pakker says:

    by finding this results it seems like the keywords dont nessesary corrects with the other sites. Does any know what i mean? fore exaple like

  12. says:

    Informativ og virkelig god artikel . Jeg begynder at wach mit online job med andre øjne. Jeg er enig med dig så må vi se på vores online job som en rigtig en, så vi kan succes.