John Paczkowski

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Google Speeds Search by Guessing as You Go

Always looking for ways to perfect the art of the search, Google is now giving its users a more complete picture with every stroke. In an event at SF MOMA this morning, the company unveiled Google Instant: Real-time search results as you type. Filling in the details: Marissa Mayer, VP of Search Products and user Experience; Johann Wright, Director of Product Management; Ben Gomes, Distinguished Engineer; and Othar Hansson, Senior Staff Software Engineer. Here’s the liveblog:


9:15 am: Quite a scene here this morning with press and invited guests milling about the museum’s lobby along with a squad of busy Google PR flaks. Consensus among those I’ve spoken to is that the company is rolling out a real-time search feature–search results that update in real time as a query is typed.

9:25 am: Inside the theater in which the event is to be held, now. Lights are down. Tron-esque animations on three movie screens undulating to the same sort of music they play while boarding Virgin Air flights.

9:38 am: Google flak Gabriel Stricker kicks things off: “With the kind of breakneck pace of innovation that we go through at Google, it’s nice for us to kind of let you catch your breath.”

How thoughtful. You know, I was just thinking to myself the other day that it would be nice if Google would give us all a break from being so damn awesome — if only for a moment. Say what you will, but it does get tiring basking in the company’s glory. Jeez …

“Search is one part art, one part science,” he says. He notes Google CEO Eric Schmidt’s comment yesterday: Never underestimate the importance of fast.

“Today we’re going to be talking a lot about speed. … And you’re going to hear from our Search rocket scientists in a second who will hold your hand through the latest and greatest of what we’re up to,” says Stricker. And with that he brings Marissa Mayer to the stage.

9:40 am: A few first metrics Mayer: Google’s handling 1 billion searches a week now. The company’s made hundreds of search improvements in 2010. Among them: Caffeine, which speeds up Google’s index; the addition of real-time information from Twitter; spelling corrections.

9:41 am: Also added in 2010, improved Questions and Answers and, finally, a redesign that also reformatted the presentation of Google’s search results.

9:44 am: More 2010 milestones. Google’s Superbowl commercial; Google renames itself Topeka; The two “teaser” logos the company’s run over the past two days.

9:46 am: Mayer describes today’s announcement as “a fundamental shift in search.”

9:46 am: Quick art history lesson now. Fauvism, Matisse and his painting “Woman with a Hat.”

Mayer notes how difficult it would have been to assemble that sort of information decades ago. That’s the trouble with static information, she says. It’s tough to dig up.

9:48 am: Search time used to be half-a-day, now it’s just a few moments.

“We know it takes a user about 9 seconds to enter a search into Google, 300 milliseconds for Google to serve the results of that search, 15 seconds for the user to select a result.”

9:50 am: Ultimately, a search takes about 25 seconds, says Mayer. But there’s also other time spent as a user mulls the keywords he or she will use.

“We’re up against a physical speed for entering a query and for selecting a result,” says Mayer. “And we think we’ve figured out a way to improve that.”

It’s called Google Instant, and it is indeed real-time search.

9:52 am: A quick demo of Google Instant. It’s built into Google’s main search; there’s no “Instant” feature on the page.

Mayer searches for Matisse’s “Woman With a Hat.” Before she’s even finished typing Woman With, Google’s already returned viable results.

9:54 am: Searching for fauvism now, She makes it to “Fauv” before Google’s returned the Wikipedia definition of the movement. Mayer notes that Google actually figured out that she was searching for Fauvism and not some other “fauv” word.

9:55 am: “Google Instant means much faster search, much easier search … really providing results in real time,” Mayer says. She adds that real-time search was once one of the company’s April Fools’ jokes — Metalplex.

9:57 am: Google Instant will be rolling out later today on 4 supported browsers in the US: Chrome, Firefox, Safari and IE 8.

And international roll-out will follow.

9:59 am: “We estimate that Google Instant will help our users save between 2 and 5 seconds per query,” says Mayer. “That might not seem like a lot of time, but add it all together and it’s a savings of 11 hours saved for every passing second.”

10:00 am: Johanna Wright and Othar Hansson take the stage to offer another view of Google Instant.

10:01 am: Hansson demos a search for weather. He types “W” into Google’s search field and with one keystroke, he’s given weather results for San Francisco.

10:02 am: Another search: The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo.

Hansson types “the gi.” Those letters appear in bold followed by grey prediction text “l with the dragon tattoo.”

Below it, a selection of results about Stieg Larsson’s book and the movie made from it.

10:04 am: So why even bother with the search button?

10:07 am: Answer: it allows you to limit your search terms. Example: you want to search for NY. You type NY into Google’s search field and it predicts that you’re looking for NYC. Hit the search button and Google searches for NY, not NYC. “Hitting the search button makes Google do what it’s been doing for the past 10 years,” says Hansson.

10:09 am: And now a sneak preview of a new feature set to debut this fall: Google Instant for Mobile.

10:12 am: Obviously a very helpful feature for mobile. Less typing, faster results.

10:12 am: Rolling video now of user testimonials. Well, look at that: everyone loves Google Instant.

10:14 am: Ben Gomes takes the stage to talk about the engineering challenges presented by a feature like this.

10:14 am: Gomes says that initialy reaction to the idea was that it would be too complex to pull off.

10:15 am: Google decided to do it anyway. Talking now about the evolution of partial searches to autocomplete. Once that evolution was complete, it was simply a matter of putting a good UI on it and then tweaking the timing to make it as useful as it could be.

10:17 am: Another video, this one of the eye-tracking experiments Google uses to improve its UI.

10:19 am: Interesting. As soon as the grey predictive text nears what the user is looking for, their eyes immediately shift from the search query box to the first search result.

10:20 am: Gomes continues: search was initially HTML, how do you turn it into an Ajax application? A challenging task, he says.

Now a quick explanation of Autocomplete Search Requests and Autocomplete Predictions.

10:22 am: Gomes: We wanted to give you a search result for every letter. The average search is 20 letters; that’s 20 searches per query.

Lots of skepticism about that within Google initially. But ultimately the company’s engineers came up with enough optimizations to make it possible: search prioritization, caching, etc.

10:25 am: Gomes wraps things up with a long philosophical meditation on search. Evidently, search is a journey.

10:29 am: Mayer takes the stage again, offers some closing remarks of her own. “Google Instant is a different way of interacting with search, a result for every letter,” she says. “This is a step forward in search.”

10:32 am: Another video. A mashup of Bob Dylan’s Subterranean Homesick Blues video and some related Google searches.

Questions & Answers

10:36 am: Moving on the the Q&A portion of the event. Sergey Brin joins the folks who’ve lead today’s event onstage.

10:37 am: Is there a blocklist?

Wright: We care a lot about child safety issues, so we had to think a lot about autocomplete. … So we implemented a lot of the same features we already use in search to filter for pornography, hate speech, etc.

10:39 am:
Question about the evolution of interface design.

Brin: I’m astounded by the rate of innovation in the interface … I think it’s a little bit of a new dawn in computing … things were stagnant in the desktop for a decade of so, but over the past several years based on the capabilities of browsers, new technology and people being open minded about trying new things, there’s a lot of exciting work going on and we’re proud to be contributing to it … a lot of the stuff coming out over the next few years is really going to change the way we interact with computing devices.

10:42 am: Brin: “We want Google to be the third half of your brain.”

10:44 am: What’s Google Instant’s impact on SEO?

Basically ranking stays the same, says Gomes. In that sense, I don’t think there’s a big change for people trying to adapt their pages for our search engine.

10:44 am: Will Google Instant be available in all locales — China, for example?

Mayer says her understanding that the company will be able to get instant running on Google.hk.

10:46 am: Mayer: “Google Instant is like power steering, once you get used to it, it’s hard to go back.”

10:46 am: Question for Brin about privacy.

“Privacy is something we think about a lot as a company and certainly users place a lot of trust in us. … We spend a lot of time thinking about this and ways of keeping people’s information secure and I don’t think Google Instant is any different.”

10:47 am: During testing, what was the percentage of users who didn’t want Google Instant?

Mayer says there were some users who opted to turn it off, primarily for speed reasons. Not many, though.

10:49 am: Another for Brin: Did you ever think that search would reach this point?

Brin: It’s pretty amazing the things we can do today, benefitting from Moore’s Law of computation … Philosophically I might have understood that this was possible, it’s quite another thing to see it happen … this is a real tribute to people who work on computing everywhere.

10:54 am: Are there plans to make this even faster in the future or is there a technical limitation that will prevent that?

Gomes chuckles, says we should enjoy the speed we have now, but adds that Google will certainly strive for further improvements.

How will Google Instant change our interaction with advertising?

Gomes says the company believes that if it focuses on the user experience, everything else will follow.

“Our ads are a very important part of our user experience, “adds Wright.

10:59 am: A few final comments and the event concludes. Thanks for reading.


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— Phil Zimmerman, PGP inventor and Silent Circle co-founder, in an interview with Om Malik