Google Instant - solving a problem we didn't know existed

You know all that time you waste every day waiting for search results on Google? (What do you mean, no?)

by Emma Haslett
Last Updated: 21 Jan 2011
Google’s latest search ‘innovation’ is a feature called Instant, which does away with the inconvenience of having to actually click the ‘search’ button by bringing up results as you type your query. The idea is that the new feature will save ‘between two and five seconds’ per search – which over the course of a week might well give you enough extra time to, erm, make a cup of tea or something (if the kettle’s already boiled). We can’t help feeling that the old adage of ‘if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it’ applies here – although maybe Google has one eye on drumming up some extra revenue from keywords…
Google says the new feature represents a ‘quantum leap’ in search, allowing users to find what they want before they’ve even finished typing. On a blog, it told users: ‘you don’t really want search-as-you-type… you really want search-before-you-type’ (which rather suggests it’s begun to stray into the realm of mind-control - watch out). Apparently the average person spends 25 seconds on each search; and while it’s never seemed a particularly slow process to us, that’s clearly not good enough for Google. It says proudly that it expects to save its users 11 hours per second. Which we suppose is a good thing, although it’s hardly going to dramatically improve your work/life balance…
Then again, conspiracy theorists have been quick to point out that Instant may have an additional advantage for Google. According to SEO experts, the new feature could cause problems for AdWords customers who buy up cheaper ‘tail’ keywords – the ones that relate to complex queries with multiple search terms (for instance, ‘business management advice’). If Google can predict searches before users finish typing, there’s no need to input those longer terms – so instead of getting $1 per click, Google can get $40 per click for the shorter ‘head’ terms (like ‘business’).
After a year in which Google’s share price has dropped by a quarter, that would be very welcome. It seems to be having some problems working out what to do next. Its (open source, thus limited in revenue potential) mobile operating system Android has been a hit, but its forays into social networking have been less successful: it’s already pulled the plug on its ill-fated collaboration platform, Wave, while Buzz is still not pulling up any trees. So it ends up focusing its innovation efforts on search, an area where it arguably doesn’t actually need to get any better. Is this really a ‘quantum leap’ of the type we’ve come to expect from Google?
What’s more, there may be some inherent problems in search results appearing before you’ve finished typing. For example, Wuthering Heights fans looking to find out more about the setting for Cathy and Heathcliff’s most famous trysts could be in for a nasty surprise…

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