Instant success?


So I fired up IE-8 and I tried Google Instant. It’s fast: as fast as I can type, it’s showing me search results. Mind you the results aren’t always sensible, but they are delivered quickly. It works great for short queries such as looking for a popular sense of some word. In this case, it saves me the trouble of hitting enter. Nice, but not earth-shattering.

When I am looking for something less obvious, it guesses wrong. For example, the query “information processing and management” (an academic journal) first produced a set of results for the partial string “”inform” that match Nice, but not the journal. After I typed “information,” it showed me the wikipedia page for “information” (oh the irony) and a bunch of other links highly-associated with the term. But no journal. “information proc” produced a bunch of hits on “information processing.” Better, but not what I am after. Completing the second word and pressing the space bar yielded a number of links to “information processing theory,” which also happens to be the top query suggestion. But no journal. Only when I typed “information processing and” did I get the results I wanted.

So what are we to make of this new addition to Google’s bag of tricks?

It’s a slick interface that has been referred to as truly interactive. The problem is that the word ‘interactive’ has several meanings, and that can lead to some confusion. There are two important meanings in this context:

  • Responsive in terms of speed.
  • Responsive in terms of intent

Instant excels with respect to speed of response. But does it excel with respect to what people are trying to find? Let’s compare it to the query suggestions that Google and other search engines already provide. The query suggestion feature shows several queries (presumably derived from what other people have typed in the past) similar to the one being typed. They give you a range of options to guide your typing, and may provide some insight into the terms related to your information need.

What about Instant? Well, it seems to execute the most common query suggestion and show you the results. If that’s what you were after, it saves you a couple of seconds. If not, it has just introduced a bunch of visual clutter and psychological bias, without giving you any extra insight. If the document you wanted is in the top four or five results, you’ll get see it; if not, you’re not going to see it anyway because you’re typing, not scrolling the result set.

Thus one difference in the nature of interactivity that the two features offer is that query suggestion helps you explore the space more broadly, whereas Instant tries to steer you to the more focused, best-for-everybody set of documents. In effect, this probably means that by promoting these documents Google is actually decreasing the overall number of different results it delivers to users. While this improves the performance of its caching scheme, and reduces the search time for really common results by a small amount, it works against the more exploratory kinds of information needs that require more interaction based on meaning rather than on speed.

There is another ironic twist to Instant that might affect its long-term viability: whereas over the last few years we’ve seen a trend to longer web queries, this interface encourages people to type less. With fewer words typed, there will be a reduction in the diversity of available suggestions, forcing people into the same query ruts, or forcing them to avoid these Instant suggestions. The Wisdom of Crowds approach works best when the opinions being aggregated are truly independent; lack of independence (such as that caused by acting on suggestions from a small set) may lead to herd mentality instead.

In short, Google Instant seems more like a souped-up version of the “I am feeling lucky” button than an interactive search interface that helps people explore. But it is slick!


  1. Twitter Comment

    Posted “Instant success?” [link to post] #google #instant

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  2. One interesting side effect of Instant for me is that it sometimes leads me to perform more exploratory search. The main reason is that it is faster to see the results from query suggestions. In short, it costs me less to quickly explore alternative paths and wordings.

  3. Twitter Comment

    agree RT @HCIR_GeneG: Posted “Instant success?” [link to post] #google #instant

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    RT @HCIR_GeneG: Posted “Instant success?” [link to post] #google #instant

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  5. That’s a spot-on comparison to “I’m feeling lucky”.

    As UI developers, we should keep in mind perceived speed versus speed. And Google Instant feels fast. There must be an insane amount of clever caching to get this to work.

    From your first comment, I can only imagine you’re a very slow typist. Or have a very fast connection. I get all the way through “information” before the first suggestion pops up. I ripped through “Gene Golov” and got a page full of noise suggesting “Geico” (after “Ge”) before the engine caught up and found you.

  6. I’m with Jeff on this. I’m hardly as obsessed with speed as many of my colleagues, but I have found that Google Instant makes search more fluid and thus lowers the cost of query elaboration and exploration. Sure, it’s a bit weird for me that “f” auto-completes to “facebook” and “facet” auto-completes to “facetime”. But, as Bob says, I only notice these things if I’m typing slowly. I’ve already learned from Google Suggest that I can stop typing after entering what I believe to be enough characters to reduce most the uncertainty around my intended query. Google Instant fine-tunes that process, giving me near-certainty of when to stop, as well as the possibility of hedging my bets. I concede that it can introduce intermediate distractions, but I’ve been using it for a few months and feel it is a net gain. I’m not always happy with my employer’s innovations, but I’m very bullish on this one.

  7. @Bob I was intentionally typing slow to see what it would do, but it is quick enough that when I type a longer query it replaces the results at least once.

    @jeff, @Daniel I guess I will reserve judgment on the longer-term impressions of its use, but I am concerned that people are making decisions wrt/ query usefulness based on four or five hits.

  8. Update: Instant now works for me in Firefox as well… not sure what what up when I first tried it.

  9. […] written about Google Instant before, but Daniel Tunkelang’s recent post triggered some additional reactions. Daniel writes that […]

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