In announcing its new “instant search” feature, Google is trying to redefine the way users get results. If you conduct a search at Google.com using a supported browser (Chrome, Firefox, Safari and Internet Explorer 8), your search results will start to appear as you type.
The results appear and are continually redefined as you type, while Google attempts to predict what you have in mind by suggesting the rest of your search in gray text. For example, if you type in “United,” it adds the word “airlines” in gray. But if you scroll down, it will also display “United Healthcare,” “United States Postal Service” and other popular searches beginning with “United.”
A Google representative said the company worked long and hard on performance issues to be able to create a system that, according to the Google blog, “was able to scale while searching as fast as people can type and think.”
At the press announcement, Google Vice President Marissa Mayer likened the search transition to Bob Dylan’s 1965 switch from acoustic guitar to electric. You can turn off Google’s new feature if you don’t like it and still use Google search.
For many, the big question is how it will impact the way people search, what they find and, ultimately, what they land on. Google is quick to point out that it doesn’t affect the results. But in a way it does, because it tries to predict what you type.
For example, as soon as you type in the letter “a,” you see several results for Amazon.com. That might not be a big deal, because Amazon doesn’t have any major competitors beginning with A. But if you type “trav,” Google guesses you mean Travelocity, while there are other travel sites, like TravelZoo that begin with those letters whose results are not immediately displayed.
One reason this is important is that where a site comes up in a Google search can have an enormous impact on its success. Search engine optimization or SEO is a multibillion-dollar industry in which numerous companies compete with services to help websites improve their Google rankings. The services offered by these companies range from good advice on how to create useful and compelling content to all sorts of tactics and tricks to try to fool Google into thinking your site is more important than others — including some sleazy ones that add terms that may have nothing to do with actual content.
Google doesn’t disclose a lot of details about the algorithm used to determine what it calls a PageRank. On its corporate information page, Google says it considers “more than 500 million variables and 2 billion terms,” and further states that “PageRank also considers the importance of each page that casts a vote, as votes from some pages are considered to have greater value.”
At its basic level, that means an incoming link from an “important” site will have more impact than an incoming link from a less important site. That has led businesses that want their sites highly ranked to link to other sites for a fee. Google says it’s aware of that trick but that doesn’t stop companies from spending money to try to increase their rankings.
While Google’s new “instant search” may be smarter in some ways, it’s still far from being “psychic,” as some have coined it. It tries to predict what you want, but primarily does that based on what you type, and it still can’t fully resolve ambiguities in language. For example, if you type “Jaguar” it doesn’t know if you’re looking for a cat or a car. Even when I typed “jaguar ca” it still thought I was looking for a car until I typed the “t.”
Algorithms that try to clarify the word based on context can help but still came up short when I typed “sleek jaguar,” though worked well when I switched to “ferocious jaguar.” Google can improve results for users who are logged in with a Google account because it can look at your search history to help determine what you’re likely looking for.
Of course, Google is the first to admit it has a long way to go in its effort to perfect search, as does Microsoft, which is trying to improve the back-end software that powers its Bing search engine.
Someday, all we will have to do is imagine something and it will be there in front of us. But in the meantime, it’s up to software engineers to imagine how to make that happen.