Liz Gannes

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Google Makes Search Faster With Instant Pages, Desktop Voice Search & Image Queries

Google gathered press today to speak with its search expert Amit Singhal and other members of its team about its latest progress in search. Before the event started, the company posted an “Inside Search” Web page reviewing the history of its search innovations. Here’s what happened next:

Google Fellow Amit Singhal introduces search as “breaking barriers between you and the knowledge you seek.” He’ll talk about three areas: mobile, desktop, Google Instant.

9:36 am: Now he’s talking about knowledge, Google’s new favorite word. “With search we strive to make sure that there are no derailments in your train of thought … Search is about getting you all the knowledge instantaneously.”

First barrier to knowledge: being away from a computer — a.k.a. mobile. On weekends, Google search traffic from desktop computers dips. But mobile searches actually peak on Saturday.

Singhal: If you look by time of day, highest search volume is around 3 pm. People work later and later these days but desktop search traffic drops off at the end of the night. But mobile search peaks at night.

Search traffic goes down seasonally, but “there is no summer slump or Christmas break in mobile search,” says Singhal.

Singhal now onto another metaphor: Google’s efforts at search are like trying to get a hole in one every time. “On mobile, it’s even more critical that you get the first result right.”

9:48 am: Next up: Scott Huffman and Steve Chang for a mobile search dive.

Huffman: Mobile searches used to be really simple. But then mobile phones became more powerful computers and “sort of overnight we saw our mobile search stream transform into something interesting.”

Launching today are icons at the bottom of Google mobile Web search interface. And a better mobile local search UI shows your location on a map and dynamically changes the map with AJAX to highlight each result as you look at it.

Also, they have integrated query suggestions from a user’s history so you can more quickly get to things you search for a lot. Searching for the S&P 500 brings up an interactive widget that was launched back in March, Huffman says.

Still demoing features that were previously launched. A “spyglass icon” next to mobile search results lets you scan through previews of Web pages.

9:56 am: Now a sneak preview of a refreshed tablet search UI: bigger images, etc. “On these tablet devices, people really do like to consume a lot of information,” Huffman says.

Also announcing Google Goggles with translation for Russian.

9:58 am: Mike Cohen, manager of speech technology, is next. “Arguably, speaking is the most natural way we learn to express our needs,” he says. “When it comes to mobile, speech input is particularly important.”

Mobile speech input for search has grown by a factor of six in the last year, Cohen says.

Cohen: To make a speech interface successful, it must be accurate and it needs to be available for every application, language, platform and device.

Speech interfaces that are more accurate promote more usage. This requires massive amounts of data. Just for U.S. English Google has the system parse roughly 230 billion words of data from real queries, taking many CPUs decades of processing time to do that learning (but multiple machines are run simultaneously so it doesn’t take that long).

In Android, whenever the keypad button pops up there’s also a microphone button — for all applications, all Web pages, without the developer needing to do anything. Developers may not realize their apps are speech enabled, but they are just by virtue of being on Android.

10:05 am: Currently released languages cover about two thirds of the world’s population, and constantly releasing more.

Next: Johanna Wright, director of product management for search. “Why is it that we can’t take these same innovations and bring them back to the computer to find knowledge there?”

She tells a story about proving she was right in an argument (Which is really the point of everything, huh?) by using voice search to get the translation of squirrel into Spanish (“ardilla”).

So today: voice search for desktop.

This is evoking the first applause of the day, from the planted Google employees. We press folks are a surly bunch.

Now showing off voice search disambiguation of Worcester, Massachusetts and College of Wooster.

Also announcing: search by image on desktop.

Next demo is of a blurry image of a guy standing on a trail in front of an island in Greece. You can now drag an image from your desktop into the search query box. This returns the name of the island: Nea Kameni. (Whoa, kinda crazy!)

Wright says, I see at work people passing around all these images with cute animals and block white text on them, what is this all about?

Searching for a “Y U No” image produces the Know Your Meme entry for it, and shows visually similar images even though they have different text in them.

The image search feature is rolling out globally on over the next few days. It can copy/paste URL, upload from desktop, drag and drop, or use a new Chrome or Firefox extension.

10:17 am: Singhal is back to talk about what’s next for Google Instant.

“What is the biggest barrier to getting the knowledge you want? It’s time.”

Google Instant will be available “in the coming weeks” on Google Image Search. Now showing video demo of this.

10:21 am: Flipping channels on the TV or pages on a magazine is still faster than loading a Web page, Singhal says.

Singhal: Autocomplete and Google Instant help save users time to enter a query and select a result. But once you select the result, it takes another 5 seconds on average for that page to arrive on your browser.

But what can Google do about third-party Web site load times? Next announcement: Google Instant Pages.

“With Instant Pages, sometimes when you click on a result the page will be there just instantaneously.”

Instant pages takes 0 seconds for the Washington Post homepage to load, versus 3.2 seconds without it. This is done by pre-rendering in Chrome triggered by Web search when Google is “very confident” in results.

Singhal: This wouldn’t be possible without our relevance technology. We don’t want to waste bandwidth.

Every query on Google is now potentially 4-10 seconds faster with the combination of Google Instant and Instant Pages. Available this week in Chrome Beta, and available today in Chrome’s developer version. Launching on mobile in coming weeks.

10:34 am: Singhal wrapping up: it’s all about faster and faster. Now time for Q&A.

Q: Will Instant Pages come to Firefox?
Singhal: It’s in the open source code, so we are expecting other browsers to take this standard and incorporate it.

Q: What about ads?
Wright: Expect more innovations soon.
Singhal: Ads are an integral part of that experience.

Q: How is Instant Pages different from pre-rendering?
Peter Linsley: It’s similar to Firefox pre-fetching, but beyond downloading just the HTML page it gets images, style sheets and executes Javascripts.

Q: What about TV?
Singhal: We do want to extend to every Android device which would include Google TV.

Q: Couple detail checks:
Wright: Voice search on the desktop is Chrome only now.
Huffman: Yes, we will see recommendations from friends in local search.

Q: How often will Instant Pages be triggered? How do you keep from skewing analytics?
Singhal: Webmasters will be told through analytics. We are very pleased that the number of times we can predict confidently is far more than we expected.

Q: What’s launching today?
A: Query-building capability, icons, local maps, Russian translation, voice search in English, search by image. Instant Pages for stable Chrome “in coming weeks.”

Q: Bing?
Singhal: Competition is good for users.
Alan Eustace: Search is the core of our business and the investment levels are continuing and increasing.

Q (from me!): Is search speed a competitive advantage for your other products, like Chrome and Android?
Singhal: Our focus on speed is not only launched on things like Android and so on. Google Instant is everywhere. With the launch of Instant Pages we are opening up the source code and would like all browsers to take on these advances because it’s good for the users, it’s good for the world. In search it’s all about the users.
Wright: In Google’s DNA is speed. Every time you speed up an application people use it more.

Q: Face recognition?
A: Nope.

Q: Reorg?
Eustace: We used to have a lot of “time-slicing,” now are narrowed down into product areas instead of multiplexing over a lot of things.

The reason Larry created a title of “Knowledge” is his view of search is much broader than just a query finding a result in pages. He thinks Google should understand how things are related. He wants us to know more rather than just find better.

Long answer from Eustace continues: Amit leads search … For me it’s elevated the importance of search in the organization.

Singhal: Focusing on knowledge is just a natural progression of that information pyramid.

Q: Would you submit voice search sound files to authorities?
Cohen: Voice searches are anonymized and saved for 24 months, we don’t associate them with individuals.

Q: More clarifications about Instant Pages…
Singhal: Instant Pages is usually just for the first result.

Q: Can search by image be used to find things that are private, like a person’s house?
Wright: If you take a picture of something that’s not common, that there aren’t a lot of photos of, it’s probably not going to work very well.

Q: Why no social?
Wright: Social is important to us, but today was around speed. Great year for social: +1 buttons, liked content in search results.
Singhal: We have seen social search grow and we are very pleased with what we’re seeing.

Singhal’s ending note on speed: Every time we shave even 50 milliseconds off the search process, users search more and more. It’s great for the users, and it’s great for Google.

Also, Instant Pages not personalized, doesn’t matter if you’re logged in or not, says Singhal.

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