Revisiting Google Instant — new standard or gimmick?

By IKU KAWACHI

A couple of weeks ago, we discussed Google Instant, the newest feature to be added to the ever-popular Google search engine. Rolled out amid comparatively little hype on Sept. 8, Instant predicts what search query users are entering as they type and displays search results in real-time without them hitting “Enter”. The principle, according to Google, is that the feature can save time because it can often predict keywords or phrases and display before users type them out in their entirety. What’s more, this instant feedback also allows users to refine their queries as they type based on what search results appear, making the search experience more productive and less stressful.

Regardless of the real-life value or the practicality of such a feature, Google deserves credit for its creativity and continued commitment to improving its search engine, especially when its market share is said to be a staggering 65 percent. At first glance, Google Instant seems like a promising new feature—something that, while unlikely to reinvent the search experience, is soon to prompt a host of competing search engines to roll out their own “copycat” versions.

Yet there are shortcomings to the feature, too, some more obvious than others: for starters, having it enabled can be somewhat resource-intensive, since the data being downloaded and rendered with each keystroke is more or less equivalent to that of one “standard” search. (Google automatically disables Instant for those with particularly slow Internet connections.) Hitting “Enter” after typing out a query also often results in an annoying pause, even if Instant is already displaying the same results in question. To some, especially those less patient or less willing to adapt to change, these quirks may be enough to prompt them to turn the feature off.

Competitors in the industry have their own criticisms. Yusuf Mehdi, senior vice president of Microsoft’s Online Audience Business, says Google is mistakenly placing the focus on the number of results rather than “speed to task completion”. He adds, “it’s nice when a mechanic knows the make, and model, and year of your vehicle and orders parts accordingly. It’d be less helpful if he showed you a selection of parts for all cars of a certain make and all cars of a certain model year before landing upon the right thing.” There is even a legal controversy: one Yahoo! executive says Google may be infringing on as many as five patents owned by Yahoo!, who experimented with a similar predictive search technology back in 2005. Some experts are even voicing concerns that Instant may “kill SEO (search engine optimization)” as we know it, though Google is unlikely to be worried about its newfound opportunity to charge higher rates for more-trafficked terms for its pay-per-click AdWords service.

Meanwhile, Google Instant currently only works with newer versions of Google ChromeMozilla Firefox, Apple Safari and Microsoft Internet Explorer, and the newest beta of Chrome (7.0) is still the only browser with integrated support for Instant in its address bar. Google announced keyboard navigation for Instant earlier this week, supposedly further accelerating the search experience for users. As the feature matures, and minor drawbacks like those above are corrected, it will be interesting to see how users—and competitors—react.

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