Google shook the search market last week with the launch of Instant, a new feature that lets the company's search engine refresh results on the fly as people type their queries.
Eager to speed up how people craft queries and choose site links and ads, Google said it developed Instant to be not "search as you type" but rather "search before you type." Instant combines Google's existing query suggestion feature with a new ability to refresh the result sets based on Google's predictions of the users' intended search terms.
As tends to happen whenever Google introduces a potentially disruptive technology, a debate has sprouted, in this case focused on how Instant potentially changes three things: the way publishers optimize their pages to rank in Google results; the way marketers pick and bid on keywords for search ad campaigns; and the way end-users articulate queries and review results.
Othar Hansson, a Google senior staff software engineer, addressed these and other questions in a recent interview with IDG News Service. An edited version of the conversation follows:
IDG News Service: Some worry that Google Instant may ironically slow down the search process by distracting end users with the on-the-fly refreshing of results and ads. What is Google's response to that?
Othar Hansson: We tested this a lot in our usability labs and also in live experiments prior to the launch and we found that while they're typing their search queries, people tend to be focused on the search box. When we get correctly what [query] they're searching for, then they look at the results below.
Many people in our usability tests couldn't even articulate what was different about the search. They said they weren't sure if Google had always worked this way or not. Distraction is far from what these people experienced. I'm sure there's a minority of people who will find it distracting and that's why we offer a way to opt out that's right next to the search box.
IDGNS: Some have said that combining the automatic query suggestions with the instant change of search results will discourage people from crafting original queries, choosing instead the "pre-packaged" ones Google offers, and that this will change how people use the search engine in a fundamental way.
Hansson: What we have found with [query] auto-complete in the past is that people certainly take the time savings when the [suggested] query is something that's close to what they're looking for. In some cases, the longer queries aren't necessarily better than what we're suggesting. Also, because we're making it faster, we're also making it easier for people to drill down into their search. Whether people will drill down more or take the time savings, I don't know: Ultimately it'll be up to the user which one they prefer.
IDGNS: How will this affect the search engine optimization that publishers do to improve the way their pages rank on Google results?
Hansson: The SEO community is very good at optimizing for whatever people are searching for. This will change the way people search, but if anything it gives SEOs more opportunities to apply their expertise than ever before. Someone's going to have to analyze this data and think about it. That's their business and they'll do an excellent job at it, I'm sure.
IDGNS: What will be the effect on search engine marketing? If longer, original queries will decrease, and Google's pre-packaged ones will be favored, how does that change the way advertisers choose queries to bid on?
Hansson: The main thing for search marketers is that people will still be searching, and, if anything, searching more. Most advertisers tend to advertise for tens of thousands of keywords, not just a few. So they'll still get plenty of impressions and clicks.
IDGNS: Do you plan to extend Instant to your vertical engines like News, Books, and Image search?
Hansson: I want to get on every search feature we have. We have people working hard on that.
IDGNS: How do you envision future enhancements and improvements to this feature?
Hansson: Browsers could do a lot to make apps like this one easier to build and better for users. There are things in HTML 5 that are being debated and that will eventually roll out that will make something like this even simpler and faster. We had to go through a lot of hoops to make this work in today's browsers. There are many opportunities to make search even more interactive and give you more relevant feedback as you're entering your search. We have a lot of demos and features that we left out which we didn't have time to get in [this first version.] This is a first-of-its-kind product, so it will evolve. It's certainly going to change.
IDGNS: Is this going to be the default search mode in the future at some point for most people?
Hansson: It's the preferred mode for most people after 10 minutes of giving it a try. They instantly figure out how to use it. People don't like change so there's an initial reaction, but we've gotten a lot of positive feedback.