Google Instant: Less innovation, more profit

The new search service aims to squeeze more cash from Google's core business -- and may prove that the search giant has no more worlds to conquer

It's a testimony to the importance of Google in our daily lives that Google Instant -- a flashy but not particularly revolutionary tweak to the search engine UI -- has created such, well, instant buzz. The change could help Google squeeze more money from its core search advertising business in the short run, though the new money found will be more of a marginal boost than a gold rush.

Google's Marissa Meyer spun a picture of Instant as a boon to a time-starved Net-searching world, claiming that with every passing second the feature saves 11 person-hours of search time. But impressive as this aggregated number may sound, the days when anyone thought that Google implemented cool new features just to make users' lives better have long passed. The number we really ought to contemplate is what the impact of the service on the search giant's bottom line will be.

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Predictably, it will be good. Instant searching will probably encourage less complex queries, which bring up more and better paid search ads. And search ads refresh as users type, providing more opportunities for users to click and earn money for Google. Still, such a route to revenue -- extracting maximum value out of existing users by packing more ads into time they already spend on the site -- smacks of the sort of gaming we've seen from cash-starved websites (articles spread out over multiple ad-strewn pages, sites that auto-refresh with new ads as you read) and seems a little beneath an innovative company like Google.

But truth be told, Google needs that kind of marginal revenue if it's going to continue to grow. Despite the company's seeming omnipresence in the high-tech world, the vast majority of its revenues still come from search ads. All the betas and groundbreaking technologies we've seen over the years haven't changed that fact.

And despite the fanfare that accompanies this release, there doesn't seem to be a great deal of technical innovation involved: Google has offered predicative search terms for years now, and all Google Instant does is make the actual results from those terms appear onscreen without the user hitting the return key, via clever JavaScript jiggery-pokery. (Presumably this results in increased demand on the back end, but if there's one thing Google can do fairly well at this point, it's throw servers at that sort of problem.)

Meyer's statement that Instant for Mobile is in the pipeline has led to speculation that the ultimate purpose of the feature is to improve search on platforms without touch-typable keyboards. It probably will in the long run, though it's worth noting that those platforms have more limited processing power that will make the JavaScript trickery all the trickier. For now, it's hard to ignore that Instant's initial rollout, unlike many quirky new Google services, is aimed squarely at the company's bottom line.

A correction was made to this article on Sept. 10, 2010.

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