SAN FRANCISCO — In the time it takes you to finish reading this sentence you could easily finish several search queries using Google’s new Google Instant service.
Already known for its speedy search results, Google (NASDAQ: GOOG) unwrapped new search technology on Wednesday that is designed to greatly simplify the process users go through when making a search query and kicking back speedier, more relevant results.
“We really believe Google Instant is a quantum leap forward in search,” Marissa Mayer, Google’s vice president of search and user experience, said at an event here at the Museum of Modern Art.
Quantum leap or not, the improvements do promise to cement if not widen Google’s dominant position in the search market.
Like other search engines, Google already tries to anticipate what users are looking for by providing auto-complete suggestions. For example, as you type in the word W-E-A-T-H-E-R, the search bar may suggest “weather” by the time you’ve typed W-E. But unlike any other search engine today, Google Instant shows the search results as you type. In an onstage demonstration, the local weather results appeared as the first result after the user simply typed W. (Megastore chain Walmart might be happy to know that it was the second result).
“More and more we’re understanding the intent of the user and the Web at large,” Mayer said.
Google Instant also offers a feature dubbed “Scroll to search.” As a user types a query, an auto-fill suggestion appears on the right, as well as a drop down menu with other suggestions. Users can simply hit the arrow key to scroll to and select any of the other suggestions.
Google Instant is rolling out today across the U.S. and internationally over the next several months, and will initially work with the four most popular browsers — Internet Explorer 8, Firefox, Chrome and Safari.
The news comes as Google’s nearest competitors in the search space, Microsoft’s Bing and Yahoo, are in the midst of a transition that is migrating Yahoo’s search engine to Microsoft’s infrastructure in an effort to pose a credible challenge to the runaway market leader.
“Google has such momentum already that it’s really hard for anyone else to get users to switch. Being just as good isn’t going to cut it and Instant looks like it’s moving Google that much farther ahead,” technology analyst Richard Brandt, who recently wrote a book about Google’s founders, told InternetNews.com.
Another indication of Google’s momentum was a separate announcement that the company is now serving over 1 billion searches a week. At today’s event, Google displayed a running ticker on the wall purportedly showing the amount of time users around the world would save with Google Instant. Over the two-hour event, the device calculated that users could have saved 50,000 hours.
Google also said it plans to rollout a mobile version of Instant by early next year. Mayer said that Instant technology should be available in other Google platforms, including its Google Appliance for the enterprise.
“It’s hard to say when exactly, but I think 2011 is definitely possible,” she told InternetNews.com.
What makes “Instant” instant?
Google is known for its considerable infrastructure of data centers across the world, which it said it is leveraging to make Instant work.
“When we first suggested this project, a lot of people at Google said we couldn’t do it, that it was too complex and too expensive,” said Ben Gomes, a distinguished engineer at Google. He added that another challenge was the implementation of the technology without overburdening the company’s sprawling infrastructure. “How could we possibly do this without melting down our data centers?” Gomes said.
Among the technologies that power Instant are advanced caching techniques that Google engineers developed to enable the service to handle the billions more bits of information required to both anticipate and display results in less time than the blink of an eye, Gomes said.
But like any search technology, Instant is not infallible, nor is it every user’s preferred solution. Mayer admitted a small number of users in their tests preferred to have Instant turned off, and there is a hyperlink switch reading “Instant is on” that can be clicked to get the more standard Google results. Even with Instant turned on you can still hit the search button to get Google’s standard results.
Mayer said the main reason some didn’t want to use Instant had to do with limited connectivity, though with a typical broadband connection users should see the same snappy response time.
Google is also tailoring Instant not to reveal too much in anticipation of a user’s queries. For example, it won’t make suggestions for certain words deemed pornographic or that might incite violence.
“If it’s not appropriate, we won’t show it,” said Johanna Wright, Google director of product management.
David Needle is the West Coast bureau chief at InternetNews.com, the news service of Internet.com, the network for technology professionals.