By Harry McCracken | Wednesday, September 8, 2010 at 2:55 pm
When Google CEO Eric Schmidt gave a keynote address at the IFA show in Berlin yesterday, he talked about “a new definition of Google.” As I watched the Webcast, I was struck by the phrase–how often does an enterprise as vast and successful as Google want to redefine itself?–and listened closely to what that new definition involved.
“We’re trying very hard to get you something fast,” Schmidt said. “Never underestimate the power of fast. Quick, quick, quick–we want to help you right now.” Later in the speech, he also spoke of Google understanding what users want before they’ve even asked for it, in almost psychic-like fashion: “We can understand things like what you really meant.”
Okay, I got the idea, and assumed that we’d see the emphasis on speed and prediction expressed in Google developments in the months and years to come. But I didn’t realize that Schmidt was teasingly previewing the major announcement that the company would make a day later in San Francisco.
That announcement was the launch of Google Instant, a new interface for the world’s dominant search engine. It’s rolling out in the U.S. right now–you can also get to it at www.google.com/instant–and the goal is to provide relevant search results before you’ve even finished typing your query. Instant, in other words, aims to give you what you really meant, quick, quick, quick. (The feature will come to other countries, browser search fields, and mobile phones in the months to come.)
Instant is surely the biggest change Google has ever made to its iconic interface. For one thing, it makes the engine’s famously sparse homepage and “I’m Feeling Lucky” button more of a familiar facade than anything. (The moment you type anything, the page bulges with information and “I’m Feeling Lucky” vanishes.) From a technical standpoint, it’s unquestionably amazing. Google and other search engines have guessed at what you’re typing into the search field and shown suggestions for a while now, but Instant displays results for those guesses…well, instantly. You don’t need to finish typing; you don’t need to press Enter. You just need to keep typing until the search engine can tell what you really meant.
At the Instant press event this morning, Google execs pitched the new interface as a profound shift in the way the world will search for information. And then they went to considerable lengths to explain how thoroughly they tested it before springing it on the world. They didn’t just try it and like it themselves–they exposed large numbers of normal folks to it, and used focus groups and eye-tracking equipment to get feedback. The company even showed us a video of some just plain folks praising the change.
(I assume that all this discussion of testing methodology was in part a reaction to the short life and ignominious death of Wave, a service which Googlers mistakenly believed would be embraced by the outside world.)
How do I feel about Instant? Well, I think it’s almost never possible to fairly judge anything relating to search without at least a few days of hands-on experience. I try to remember when some pals recommended Google to me in 1998 or thereabouts–I tried it out, didn’t find it particularly scintillating, and went back to the comfortable environs of HotBot.
But here’s something I find striking about Instant: It may be quick, quick, quick, but in most cases it’ll displays search results along the way that have nothing to do with “what you meant.”
Because Instant starts guessing at your query as you type, there’s almost always a point at which it goes from guessing incorrectly to nailing it. In many cases, that happens only a few characters into your query: “pa,” for instance, gets you results about Pandora,. “bos” gets you ones about Boston;, and “spag” gets you ones about spaghetti.
In some cases, one keystroke is all you need. During today’s demo, Google wowed the crowd by showing how easy it is to get the local weather in Google Instant: Type “w” and you’re done.
Impressive! But not every search that begins with “w” involves the weather. You might want information on Wal-Mart. Or walleye pike. Or Watertown, Massachusetts. Or Wedgewood pottery, or maybe Wilt Chamberlain.
If it’s the NBA legend that you seek, typing “w” doesn’t get you there. Nor did typing “wi”–that pulled up info about Wikipedia.
Typing an “l” got me results concerning a local radio station…
Typing “t” revealed “wilt chamberlain” in the list of suggestions, but not in the results…
Only when I typed a space did Chamberlain-related results show up.
Now, typing five characters to get results about Wilt Chamberlain isn’t too shabby. It’s certainly more efficient than typing his entire name and hitting Enter. Except for one thing: If I did the search the old-fashioned way, Google would only return Wilt-related links. With Google Instant, it showed me links about the weather in San Francisco, Wikipedia, a radio station, cake, air conditioning, and a town in Connecticut first.
Because Instant is so instant, all these extraneous results fly by in a jiffy–they’re not costing you any meaningful time. (At today’s event, Google made much of the notion that Instant is going to save the world millions of hours each year, in a way that reminded me of the famous story about Steve Jobs arguing that faster Mac bootups save lives.) But for me, at least, Instant involves some minor cognitive payback. It’s not magical: I’m doing some of the heavy mental lifting myself, by glancing at the search suggestions and results and continuing to type until I know that Google understands me. Old-fashioned Google search, by contrast, involves one mental task–type a query and press Enter–rather than several small ones.
Oh, and I rarely go to Google.com anyhow–I do almost all my searching in browser address bars or search fields. I doubt that whatever time Instant saves could be worth the effort of retraining my fingertips to go to Google.com until the new interface works everywhere that Google does.
So far, I haven’t found Instant to be the great leap forward that Google seems to think it is. But neither does it feel like a New Coke-syle fiasco. For one thing, the change isn’t being forced down anyone’s throat: It’s easy to turn it off and go back to classic Google search. There’s also an easy way to split the difference between Google Instant and old Google: Rather than paying attention to search suggestions and results, you can just type your entire search query. And then stop. You’ll get the results you would have seen in the old days, without having to press Enter and wait for them to show up.
It’s also important to remember that Instant is also a starting point rather than a conclusion–the Google honchos at the event repeatedly said that the search engine gets hundreds of tweaks a year to improve its quality. That means that the Google Instant of September 2011 could be an improvement on the current one in both obvious and subtle ways.
I’m going to leave Instant on and live with it–and I’m curious what you think.