Google revs up search engine with new feature that delivers results as users type in requests

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Google search accelerates with ‘instant’ results

SAN FRANCISCO — Google Inc. stepped on its Internet search accelerator Wednesday by adding a feature that displays results as soon as people begin typing their requests.

The change, called “Google Instant,” is the closest the 12-year-old company has come yet to realizing its founders’ ambition to build a search engine that reads its users’ minds.

The achievement wasn’t lost on Google co-founder Sergey Brin, who jokingly told reporters that the company’s lightning-quick computers are morphing into the “other third” of people’s brains.

“I think it’s a little bit of a new dawn in computing,” Brin said Wednesday.

The shift means Google users will begin to see an ever-evolving set of search results appearing on their computer screens, potentially changing with each additional character typed. That means a satisfactory set of results could take just one keystroke. As an example, a person who types “w” in Google’s search box could see the weather results in the same area as where the request was entered.

Google will also try to predict what a person really wants by filling out the anticipated search terms in gray letters. Below that, in a drop-down box, Google will still offer other suggested search requests, as the site has been offering for the past two years.

The feature will be gradually rolled out throughout the U.S. this week and will be offered in other parts of the world later this year. It’s designed to work on the latest versions of the major Web browsers.

The instant results only will be displayed on Google’s standard website, which features little more than its logo and a search box. They won’t be shown to users making requests on individually designed “iGoogle” pages that are usually already covered with different decorations and programs plugged into other online services. People who prefer Google’s basic website and don’t want to see instant results can turn them off by clicking on a link next to the search box.

To minimize the chances of offending people or inadvertently exposing children to inappropriate material, Google has programmed the instant results to block websites deemed to be pornographic, violent or hateful. That restriction may trigger complaints that Google is stifling freedom of expression or unfairly screening out some sites that were improperly blacklisted.

Because Google’s search formula draws heavily upon common search requests, the instant results also could be biased toward featuring major brands and companies during the first few characters of a request. That factor conceivably could hurt smaller merchants if people stop typing after the first few keystrokes and accept the results that show up the most quickly.

Despite those potential pitfalls, Google search executive Marissa Mayer hailed the instant search breakthrough as a quantum leap akin to Bob Dylan’s switch from an acoustic to electric guitar in 1965. “It’s a fundamental shift to search and how people think of search,” she said.

If nothing else, Google is hoping that the innovation will help it to maintain its dominance of the lucrative search market as rivals Yahoo Inc. and Microsoft Corp. team up to mount a more formidable challenge. Currently, Google processes about two-thirds of Internet search requests while Microsoft and Yahoo handle most of the rest.

Google rose to popularity mainly because it focused on delivering search results within a few seconds. But Brin and the company’s other founder, Larry Page, have perpetually pushed Google’s engineers to make the search engine even faster.

By speeding up its search results, Google believes it will keep its users happier and possibly encourage people to make even more requests. That’s important to Google because each query presents another opportunity to present another one of the ads that generate most of the company’s nearly $30 billion in annual revenue.

As part of its quest to speed things up, Google figured out that the average search request takes nine seconds to type and then users spend an average of 15 seconds to decide which result to pick.

With the new instant feature, Google expects to reduce the time spent on search by two to five seconds per request, collectively saving its more than 1 billion weekly users about 350 million hours annually.

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