LIVE at Google’s Search On Event: Google Instant Debuts

Google‘s much-anticipated event promising to chart out the future of search is about to start, and the auditorium at SF MOMA is packed with press. You can view the event on YouTube. Assuming the wireless network holds up, I’ll liveblog the highlights here. And the anticipation is indeed thick. Google Fellow and search honcho Amit Singhal, sitting in front of me, leans back to tell me, “This is a day you won’t forget.” OK!

Update: Google’s blog post on Google Instant is up now, along with lots more information. To sum up, Google has essentially slashed several seconds off the time it takes to form and type in queries. As you type, Google keeps guessing what your full query is, streaming out new search results with each new letter. And that’s huge. Maybe, as some people have speculated, the rise of Microsoft’s Bing search engine goaded Google into making more and faster improvements in search–or maybe not. But it’s clear, if it weren’t already, that Google isn’t resting on its laurels. And for now, it has set a new bar in search.

Here’s a video intro from Google:

And on to the event: PR director Gabriel Stricker comes on to explain that what Google does is one part art, one part science (well, seems like at least 5 parts science but anyway). Thus the event here at the Museum of Modern Art.

He adds that speed will be a large part of what’s being announced today. And now Marissa Mayer, VP of search products and user experience, comes on. She says Google has just passed 1 billion users a week, making Google one of the most-used services (Internet or not) in the world.

In 2009, Google rolled out more than 500 changes in search. Already this year, more than that.  A few of the improvements:

* Caffeine: 50% fresher results.

*Real-time search, including timeline views and conversation views.

* Spell corrections: They’re now part of the autocomplete function as you type in a query.

* Enhancements to questions and answers.

* Stars in search: the ability to bookmark results for users signed into Google.

* Redesign: In April, Google added a left-hand panel to refine search results.

* And of course fun: first TV commercial, during the Super Bowl.

“We want search to be fun, fast, and interactive.”

And so, today’s announcement… but first Mayer provides a little art history on a Matisse painting at MOMA. Which she points out would have taken days in a library to research in 1935. Today, the Internet provides real-time info, like whether the piece is actually on display at this time.

Mayer says people take about 9 seconds to enter a query, Google takes about 300 milliseconds to deliver it, plus 800 more milliseconds network time, and then people take 15 seconds to select a result. But at some point, we’re up against speed of typing and thinking. The past few months, Google has been attacking this problem. So: Today Google is launching Google Instant, which gives search results as you type and streams those results real-time–apparently like what I saw last night.

The home page looks the same until you start typing. So type “sfm” and you get actual results for SF MOMA. So that obviously has the potential to vastly reduce the query-typing time.

Actually, Mayer says, it’s not “search as you type,” but “search BEFORE you type,” in a sense. “There’s even a psychic element to it,” she adds, anticipating what you might mean. (Sure to freak out privacy advocates.)

Mayer: It means much faster search, much easier search, more ways to explore. Google Instant will be available later today on Chrome, Firefox, Safari, and IE8, rolling out gradually. It will be part of the core Web search experience. Also will roll out in the UK, France, Italy, Germany, Spain and Russia in the next week, if you’re signed into Google.

We think Google Instant will help users save 2 to 5 seconds per query. May not seem like much, but that’s a lot of time, over time. And of course, potentially a lot more Google ads viewed.

Now Joanna Wright, director of product management, and Othar Hansson, senior staff software engineer, come onstage to show the three main features of Google Instant. Wright says to think of the features as gears in a system.

1) Instant results: There’s no need to finish typing or type “enter.” Hansson types one letter, “w” and gets results for weather in San Francisco.

2) Set of predictions: Hansson types in “the gi” on the way to typing “the girl with the dragon tattoo,” and links for the movie and book title appear. This is an example of the idea of “search before you type.”

3) Scroll to search: Hansson starts typing “yose” and gets results for Yosemite, and can quickly scroll the suggestions in the drop-down box below the search box, and as he scrolls, those results come up instantly, so you don’t have to leave the original query and can quickly scan a lot of relevant results. For example, he starts typing in “Addams Family,” then sees that the musical is what he’s interested in, and pressing tab adds that word. Then he wants tickets, so he types “t” and then a suggested result for “Addams Family musical tickets” appears instantly.

Wright: Google works seamlessly as it always has. All it does it speed things up. So if you know how to do Google search, you know how to do Google Instant . (This is key, since too many newfangled search features require changing behavior, taking extra steps, and the vast majority of people just don’t do it. Google has been bemoaning this for years, but here it has found at least one way for people to refine results with virtually no added effort.)

And now a sneak preview of something coming out this fall: Hansson: We’re working hard to get this on mobile. Because typing on a phone is slower than on a keyboard, Google Instant should be even more useful on mobile devices. This will be available later this fall.

Ben Gomes, a Google distinguished engineer, comes on to explain the technology behind it. He says some people within Google said it would be too expensive, or too complex. But upper management said, “We have to do it.” Three challenges: user interface design, search as an application, and efficiency and scale.

On the user interface: Actually, one Google engineer demoed this years ago, calling it “incremental Google search,” but Google wasn’t fast enough to handle it. Hansson says showing early incremental results was actually distracting at first with test users, but says Google eventually got the timing right to reduce that distraction factor.

On search as an application: Had to optimize all kinds of things, most of them way over users’ heads.

On efficiency and scale: Gomes: How do we possibly do this without melting down our data centers? Several optimizations, says Hansson, in the initial prototype, in prioritizing searches, in caching (storage) of results, and many more they’re not talking about.

Gomes thanks the team that did this, showing a slide with the photos of more than 200 people.

Summing up, Gomes says Google Instant “makes search much more fun, fluid, and interactive,” as well as faster. Mayer calls it “search at the speed of thought.” Now she talks about the Google Instant team was inspired by Bob Dylan, showing a video to Dylan’s Subterranean Homesick Blues. OK, I think it’s time for questions…. And indeed it is, with the principals joined by Google cofounder Sergey Brin and Udi Manber, the VP of engineering responsible for core search.

There are numbers counting on two screens at the sides of the auditorium, clicking upward by 11 each second–the number of hours saved per second by Instant, according to Google’s estimate.

Q: When will Instant get into the browser itself (where many people do queries)? Mayer: A few months. (Not sure why it will take that long, but it can’t come too soon. I don’t often search from itself.)

Q: What impact will Instant have on advertising? Mayer: The overall clicks to a site should remain similar.

Missing a few questions, sorry….

Q: Is there a blacklist for certain words? (This from an AdAge reporter with the last name of Slutsky.) Wright: We filter for violence, pornography. We won’t show results until you actually press enter.

Q: How much personal info is needed to do these predictive results? Mayer: For weather, for example, it’s not personal info, it’s IP address that implies location.

Q: Where does the machine-human interface go from here? Brin: Jokes that he wanted to say “We want to make Google the third half of your brain.” “It’s a little bit of a new dawn in computing. Things have been stagnant on the desktop for a decade.” That’s changing now with the Web and new platforms.

Q: What’s the impact on search engine optimization? Gomes: Basically, ranking stays the same. So in that sense there’s not that big a change in people trying to adapt to the search engine (changes).

Q: What about China, given that Google results are blocked there? Mayer: Goal is to roll out in as many platform and geographies as possible. Hope to roll out on, the Hong Kong site.

Q: What are the benefits of this for the average user? Does the average user want faster search? Duh.

Q: How will this impact concerns about privacy? Brin: Privacy is something that we think a lot about as a company. Users place a lot of trust with us. I don’t think Google Instant is any different in that respect.

Q: How will user behavior change over time with Google Instant? Gomes: You may do more multiple queries around your result… because it’s such a fluid experience. People are going to explore their topic of interest much more than they did before.

Q: Did some test users not like this, and if so, why? Mayer: Some users did choose to turn it off, but mostly for connection speed issues, and a very small percentage.

Q: Is this separate from Caffeine? Gomes: Not directly related, but faster cache of Caffeine makes Instant more possible.

Q: How will Instant affect paid search, and will it mean the end of SEO? Wright: The ranking of our search results is the same.

Q: Did you ever think that you would reach this point? Brin: It’s kind of amazing the things we can do today, with Moore’s Law etc. We did have to spend a lot more compute power on it.

Q: Can search get even faster? Gomes: Tomorrow, I’m sure we’re going to go back tomorrow and try to make things even faster, because that’s what we do. Manber: You ain’t seen nothing yet.

Q: Won’t the fact that this reduces the need to go to Page 2 of search results affect search ads? Wright: This is a user-focused launch. And we really believe that’s going to be better for advertisers. Don’t anticipate any fewer ads to be shown. (Wright seems confused by the question, but I also wonder why there wouldn’t be some impact on the number of ads shown, or at least whether advertisers will bother trying to get ads anywhere but the top and right of the first page. Indeed, Steve Rubel thinks Instant makes SEO irrelevant. John Ebberts at also has some insider thoughts on what Instant could mean for various kinds of online advertising.)

Q: Last one, from Search Engine Land’s Danny Sullivan: Sometimes the top search results are not really right, so how will Instant affect that? Hansson says basically that it’s faster to get to more relevant results, even those that would have appeared on page 2 or later.

And that’s it.

3 Responses

  1. […] Google will talk about, but events like this often are a forum for introducing new features. The last time Google did a similar event, the company introduced Google Instant, which shows search results as […]

  2. […] she and a couple of Google guys are announcing two enhancements to the recently launched Google Instant. One is a little arrow next to the instant results that indicates you can use the keyboard to […]

  3. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Robert Hof, Robert Hof. Robert Hof said: LIVE at Google's Search On Event: […]

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