Instant gratification

Google gets faster. But does it get better?

When it comes to change and unexpected innovation, my default stance is one of stubborn resistance. For example, despite having been shown many enthusiastic demonstrations of how great iPhones are, until they cease to be anywhere near the forefront of consumer technology, I refuse to contemplate getting one. And if I did have one, it definitely wouldn’t have iOS4.

So when Google unveiled Google Instant, the most radical overhaul of its search interface ever, I really wanted to be thoroughly underwhelmed. As it turns out, I’m mightily impressed by the amount of clever work that’s gone into the new product but less sure about what it’s actually achieved.

Faster and smarter?

The new functionality was introduced on the Official Google Blog by Marissa Mayer, VP Search Products & User Experience, saying, “Google Instant is search-before-you-type. Instant takes what you have typed already, predicts the most likely completion and streams results in real-time for those predictions—yielding a smarter and faster search that is interactive, predictive and powerful.” Is this the case?

Instant search is undoubtedly fast. Indeed, much of the promotional material released by Google focuses on the issue of speed, as they claim that using Instant saves users between two to five seconds per search. The rate at which the results update is a technical marvel and seems sufficient to speed up at least some searches. The fact that there is no bar to simply searching in the time honoured way of completing a search query and clicking the Search button means that Instant really can’t be detrimental to search speed.

Is it smarter and more powerful? Well, much of the predictive “smartness” is based on the pre-existing functionality of the Google Suggest drop down box of autocompleted search queries. As for being more powerful, that’s entirely dependent on the relevance of the results to what the user is looking for. Instant has had no impact on Google’s ranking algorithm, so the results served for a given query are the same as ever. No change here then.

Tying together the concepts of speed and relevance, some critics have pointed out that it really doesn’t matter how fast results are displayed if they aren’t what users are looking for. In the long run, relevance equals speed, so if relevance hasn’t been improved, neither has speed.

A threat to the long tail?

It strikes me that most of the interest around Google Instant has arisen, not because of any excitement over how it might improve user experience but because of a perception that it could cause search marketers a spot of bother.

A common worry among commentators seems to be that Google Instant will cut off the long tail of search (more specific search queries that usually generate the greatest ROI). The thought is that users will simply resort to using a smaller pool of shorter, generic search terms that Google suggests before what would have been a longer, more specific search term is completed. As a result, large, established and generic sites will benefit. Niche sites will lose out as long tail search volume dries up and they are unable to compete with the big boys for the high volume generic keywords in either organic or paid search.

I’m sceptical about this idea. For starters, it is currently available to users in the UK but only if they are signed in to a Google account, and even then it can be turned off. Instant will not be applicable to searchers who use a browser tool bar search box or to searches from an iGoogle homepage. So a lot of people will not even see Instant results.

Also, consider the existence of the verb “To Google”. Search has become entrenched as part of everyday life and search behaviour has become increasingly sophisticated, as year after year it has been shown that queries are getting longer. People know what they are looking for and know how to yield the right results from Google. Yet the diversity of search queries that I’ve seen made by the great British public never fails to astound me. Consequently, I think the long tail is safe.


The bottom line is that nobody, not even Google, really knows how Instant is going to affect search behaviour. As I’ve said above, search behaviour is massively diverse and the introduction of Google Instant just throws another variable into the mix. When it comes to search marketing, nothing much has changed – the key is still to identify trends, try out new things to capitalise on them, measure effectiveness and optimise accordingly.

In so far as the technical wizardry behind it has managed to impress even a Luddite like me, Instant is a marvellous demonstration of what the geeky bods at Google are capable of. However, I can’t see that, as it stands, it will revolutionise search, and it seems like just another way of keeping those same bods occupied.