Google Instant: New Interface, Same Old Results

Google made a big splash today with the launch of Google Instant, a somewhat glitzy update to the current Google search interface.  The question that needs to be asked, however, is whether the new functionality actually makes for a better search tool.

Add water. Search.

Speaking at the launch, Sergey Brin commented without a trace of irony that “[W]e want to make Google the third half of your brain.”  Marissa Mayer, the company’s vice president for search products and user experience, noted that “[T]here’s even a psychic element to it.”

Google Instant starts to show search results as one types.  In some respects, Google Instant appears to know what to type before one types it (although this in itself is not a new feature, Google has had a “type ahead” suggestion option for some time).

As one starts to type, results appear.  For example, in my test, using the search query “BMW 335d review,” when I typed the letter “b,” “bank of america” and “best buy” appeared as choices and search results for Bank of America appeared below.  Once I added the letter “m” the system seemed to anticipate I was going to type “bmw” and results for BMW appeared.

In some cases, the correct or best answer or content appears before one finishes typing.  Indeed, by the time I had finished typing “bmw 335d,” the word “review” appeared in grey and the appropriate results were immediately below the search bar.

The order of word entry in a multi-word search query does not seem to influence the final result but the interim results displayed as the entry is formulated will vary, of course.

An initial review of Google Instant does indicate that the new feature improves the user experience; however, while it may make searching faster, Google Instant does little if anything to provide better search results.  What it does do is provide “search-before-you-type”, by conducting searches and displaying results based on the most likely word combinations, determined as one types.  This improves the user’s ability to refine a search without hitting enter, so one can see if a mistake in wording occurred, or if one needs to add terms to narrow the search parameters.

Google has had the “type ahead” feature that completes the search query for quite a while now, and the basic mechanics that dictate suggested words appear unchanged.  The interface has been tweaked, so instead of simply having the suggestions appear below the query in a drop down menu, the most likely one appears in light grey text, completing the query.  Users can select that text if it fits their search, or use the arrow keys to select the suggestions from the drop down list that changes as the word is being typed.

The real upgrade to the user interface is the display of instant search results that appear under the search box.  These suggestions can serve to guide the knowledge worker into making a more precise search query (i.e. formulate the search query better) and narrow in on the exact result that is sought.

According to Google, the average search query takes nine seconds to type and Google Instant can cut that down by two to five seconds.  Put differently, for the 65 million knowledge workers in the U.S., if each uses Google twenty times per day for a search, each knowledge worker would save 70 seconds but that would add up to 1,263,889 man hours per day that Google Instant would be saving.

Despite the potential time savings, the main problems with search are not really addressed in this update.  One of the fundamental problems with search is that a query returns results and not answers.  Indeed in many cases, the results page only contributes to the problem of Information Overload as the knowledge worker still has to sift through the results to find what may or may not be the “right” answer.

Although a user can use the instant results to narrow down a search more quickly by not having to hit enter and refresh the results manually, the underlying search process has not changed, so our concerns regarding Google’s search engine remains the same.

Ultimately, the new feature is a cosmetic upgrade that will likely be very popular and will make the search experience appear to be better and less painful.  Behind the scenes however, the same old problems remain.  The way search tools function today – even with Google Instant on the scene –  serves to exacerbate the problem of Information Overload and does little to alleviate the problem.  It is a useful evolution of the user interface, but it does not go any deeper than that.

Jonathan B. Spira is CEO and Chief Analyst at Basex.

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