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BW Businessworld

The Speed Of Think

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Suggested search is not a new concept. Yahoo did something with it in 2005. A Bing exec said a Chinese tech enthusiast built a ‘Real Live Search' for Bing in 2009. For that matter, right after Google Instant launched, a young computer science major, Feross Aboukhadijeh, bet his roommate he could make a YouTube instant — and he did. Well, if we're to go by a message on Twitter, he may find a job at Google.

But what is new is the search experience you get when you put suggestions, together with real-time live results on the Google search page that a billion people use. I was startled when I first tried out Google Instant — and that's when I knew it was instant. It's definitely "faster than the speed of type", as Google puts it. Just about everyone will have experienced that by now. But it also happens to be faster than the speed of think. It all but eliminates the need for the Enter that we are so accustomed to using. In fact, I found searching on Google Instant a bit like being interrupted when you're trying to tell someone something. It was distracting to have a cascade of results appear magically before I'd got past one or two alphabets. I found myself either going off on a tangent to explore something I had not intended to search for, or settling for the top few results on the page. It's a known fact that people don't easily go to the second page of search results — and the instant results seemed to me to make it even more unlikely.

Yes, Google was saving us up to 20 minutes a week if we did about 50 searches, but now that we have more ceiling-staring time, we figure speed isn't everything. Questions were asked if the quality of results was any different. It seems they are not, although personalisation, which draws upon individual browsing history and the frequency of searches, becomes more evident. They were always there, of course. Type in the name of any religion and an ‘is', you'll find a certain amount of offensiveness in the first three results. This is what others have searched for — not Google's ranking of the quality and relevance of results. Type in ‘w', and you'll see weather data for your city, showing location sensitivity. This, incidentally, doesn't work for me. I can only assume I don't know where I am, but that's nothing new.

More interesting is whether this instantness will change search expectations and behaviour. It could. Having studied psychology, I find myself particularly interested in this situation. Could, for example, we become too dependent on suggestions and become less prone to refining our searches? Could we begin to think the suggestions and results are what we should be looking for, when it's actually just what others have searched for and a mix of technologies pushing results up? Of course, as a writer, I also find that suggestions also help discover things one hadn't thought of when starting a search.

I agree with Bing director Stefan Weitz when he says speed is important and Google's achievement is impressive, but search also involves a lot of smart decisions. It takes multiple queries and complex decisions to narrow down on information, and unless this is combined with speed, it doesn't matter how quick the page acts. It's about shrinking the search process from end to end. With Google Instant, searching may be faster if you don't know what you want, but slower if you do.

Reactions to Google Instant also included the possibility that it would spell the death of search engine optimisation and tamper with how AdWords will behave. Experts say there are always changes going on and these technologies adjust and keep pace. At the moment, though, there's no clarity on exactly how ads and clicks on them will be affected.

For anyone unduly upset by Google Instant, you can, of course, just go in and turn it off from the settings. I'd rather go with it as I don't think it's a great idea to lag behind changes in an essential like search. I already find it strange that there's no instantness in other places, including the category pages such as News. Google Instant is already making it to the toolbars of some browsers (Chrome) and overlays search results on whatever page you're on. More exciting will be when Instant comes to cellphones, where one can use it more effectively. In any case, we're soon to enter an age of voice, and we'll see how that combines with the speed of search and with location.

Over the past couple of years, Google has been sneaking in some wonderfully useful options to refine searches. Even if Instant is faster by 2–5 seconds per search, speed isn't everything to everyone. A friend whom I was urging to try out Instant summed it up in a few words: "I'm not in such a hurry."

The author is editorial director at Mindworks Global Media Services.

[email protected]
, @malabhargava on Twitter

(This story was published in Businessworld Issue Dated 11-10-2010)