As the heart of the web-surfing experience, search engines are some of the most popular and profitable sites on the Internet, and therefore the competition among them is fierce. Google has been the king of search engines for years, along the way becoming the most profitable Internet company in history.
So if you're Google, what do you do to try to stay ahead? How do you try to improve what is already the most popular search engine by a large margin?
The answer is the new Google Instant Search, which was announced yesterday.
A break from convention
To date all search engines have been used the same way: You enter a set of search terms, press Enter, and the search engine returns what it thinks you're looking for, usually sorted so the most likely results are listed first. If the results aren't quite what you want, you modify the search terms and search again. It's so familiar it has become second nature. But Instant Search has changed that.
What Google has done is change the way you interact with the search engine. There is no need to enter search terms and press the Enter key before you get results. Instant Search displays results as you type. Each keystroke refines the search further, and you'll see that with each key you press, the list of results instantly updates.
In this way, Instant Search allows you to refine your search interactively: You see what you're getting and you can therefore adjust the search, keystroke by keystroke. So, usually, a single pass of entering search terms will get you what you want -- no need to keep rewriting and re-entering search terms.
It really does make the search process considerably quicker and more accurate.
Google claims Instant Search reduces the average time for a search by two to five seconds (from an average of nine seconds). That may not sound like a lot, but in practice it does feel a lot faster: less time spent searching and a quicker return to whatever you were trying to do.
Where it works
Google's Instant Search is already enabled by default at the Google search page, but because it depends on code that runs on the user's machine, it doesn't work on every browser. At present it works only on Firefox version 3.x, Safari version 5.x, and Internet Explorer 8.x as well as on Google's own Chrome browser. (Notable by its exception is the popular Opera browser; presumably that will come along later.)
Google's announcement stated that Instant Search will eventually be available on mobile browsers for smartphones and tablets. (There have been reports of it already being available on Google's own Android mobile browser, but a quick check on an Android smartphone did not confirm that.)
At present Instant Search is available only on Google domains in the United States, Russia and most of Europe; it will later roll out to other Google domains worldwide. It seems safe to say that Instant Search will eventually become ubiquitous across the world and across browsers.
Some things to know
One important place where Instant Search is not available is on the built-in search-entry boxes built into almost every browser.
Thus to use Instant Search you'd have to point the browser to Google.com and open a search page. Google has announced no plans to offer it as a built-in feature for browsers. That's probably the major reason many users will end up not using Instant Search: It's so much more convenient to type search terms into the browser's built-in search box than it is to open a Google search page just to use Instant Search.
There are times when Instant Search may turn itself off, such as when it detects that the Internet connection is too slow to support the interactive nature of Instant Search. Early reports indicate that sometimes it's fooled by transient slowdowns in the Internet connection and will turn itself off; in those cases, you'll have to re-enable it manually (via a drop-down on the search page).
Sometimes Instant Search just seems not to work.
Some of these failures may be due to the user not allowing enough time for the Google search page to load completely: Because the Instant Search code needs to be downloaded and running on the browser, it's possible to start entering search terms into the Google search box before Instant Search is ready to start displaying results.
Other times Instant Search just seems not to enable itself, even on a fast connection, with the reasons not readily apparent.
When the Internet connection is fast enough that Instant Search remains enabled, it still lags at times and seems to hesitate — particularly when you backspace and re-enter new terms. In those situations, it can take as long as a few seconds for Instant Search to catch up and start displaying new results.
It's still faster than a conventional search, although sometimes it can run into little bumps and snags.
Expecting the expected
One other important thing to note about Instant Search is about its internal logic. Instant Search works by trying to anticipate what you're looking for, and it completes words as you type. That makes it very fast if you're looking for something fairly common and therefore expected. But using Instant Search can become a somewhat jerky process if what you're looking for is rare or unexpected.
Again, the interactive nature of Instant Search may still be helpful, but at times it may be easier just to go back to conventional entry mode, without Instant Search intervention.
For more information on Instant Search, see Google's Instant Search information page.