Google Instant Search: Is it an Improvement?

By Craig Buckler
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For years, Google’s search engine remained the safe and familiar option for web users. You typed a term, hit return, and were presented with pages providing 100 billion blue links. It’s all changed during the past 12 months. We’ve had a redesign, a new auto-complete bar, background images, the fade-in effect, an updated image view and now “Instant Search.” What’s going on? Is it competition from Bing? Perhaps it’s all those Google Wave developers with too much time on their hands?

Google has decided that the standard search is too slow and there’s no need for to hit return after typing a term. Google Instant uses Ajaxy goodness to present search results as you type. According to the information page, it saves 2-5 seconds per query. If everyone uses it, it’ll save 3.5 billion seconds a day — or 11 hours every second.

I suggest you try it. It’s available to users in the US, UK, France, Germany, Italy, Spain and Russia, but you can use it from elsewhere if you’re signed in to your Google account (I found I had to be logged in regardless). It works on Chrome, Firefox, Safari, and IE8 but appears to be disabled in Opera. They won’t be happy in Oslo. I’m sure Google will fix it, but there’s little excuse.

From a technical perspective, Google Instant is impressive. Multiple searches are performed as you type and, although the Ajax response is a highly-compressed string, traffic volumes will have increased significantly. Even the adverts change. Google’s data centers must be smoking, but the response remains fast throughout.

You can try alternative terms and quickly determine whether the results are relevant. However, it’s tempting to experiment so I’m not convinced it’ll result in an overall time saving.

Instant Search is integrated with the standard Google interface and it doesn’t always gel. For example, the moment you type a letter on the home page, the screen clears and the search box moves to the top — it’s a little disorientating. The auto-complete box options and the instant search don’t feel quite right together and the results can differ. I also suspect some people will be distracted by the continually changing results and adverts. Finally, Instant Search isn’t available in other areas, such as news.

I like it, but Google Instant requires further usability testing. That said, perhaps we’ll love it after a few weeks. It can be switched off in the settings if you detest it.

But is Instant Search an improvement? Do you like it? Will you continue to use it? Please cast your vote on the SitePoint poll and leave your comments below.

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  • hameed_adelabu

    yeah actually, so far with the searches i made with it recently, i spend less time…

  • harris2107

    ya i think, its a great achievement by google, it will really help the user to search any thing very easily…

  • jrb416

    I don’t like it because for me it’s unnecessary. I normally know exactly what I’m looking for when I search, and frequently use several operators in my search phrase. Maybe I will learn to like it, but for now it’s a distraction more than a help.

  • Chris

    I’ve noticed a difference between instant search and regular search. For example, if you type in “penscapes” instant search and regular search present different results.

  • There needs to be an option to turn it on or off in my opinion. I liked it at first, but now it is just annoying. It flashes results almost like a .GIF animation. :)

    • You should be able to write a Greasemonkey script that disables it quite simply ..

    • imanerd

      @flashmind Click the drop down next to the search box to disable.

  • Me@thecoffeeshop

    No, it is desorienting. I should give a couple of days but the first impression is not good and I looked quickly for the disable button

  • Yeah, sounds like it would be cool but not working in Canada regardless of browser or being signed in.


    I think having the results show up so quickly may stop the searcher from putting in their entire query they where originally going to search. This could mean something new for SEO?

  • JHig310336

    I do think it a good idea but overall not really impressed with it.

  • Tommy B

    I have a feeling that your experience with it depends on your typing speed: if you’re a fast typer, it’s made for you. But if you’re a slow typer, it’s like trying to shepherd a bunch of sugared-up kids at a theme park…

  • Jace

    It seems to work well and i guess is a fantastic example of using ajax. My only concern is that you have to be logged in to use it. Am i missing something but doesn’t this mean they can track what you’re searching for. Not that I have anything to hide – honest :) but I thought that these Civil liberties groups would be upset at google eying what each user is specifically searching for. Of course I concede that they get useful stats anyway, but not necessarily attributed to specific users.

  • Lee

    I have noticed that when I type into the search box that some letters are missed out. Which I assume is due to javascript slowing the browser down.
    It has becoming very annoying typing slowly to make it work.
    Turn it off, or I’m going back to yahoo.

  • What I do find myself doing, is typing a few characters and waiting 1.5 seconds to see if it will be enough to get what I’m looking for. And often it’s not. When I think about it, it takes more time to do all those attempts rather than typing a longer search phrase at once. So it may seem like it’s an improvement, and it’s what the mind intuition tells you, but this may also slow you down, big time.

    Also, it seems like instant could seriously affect incoming long-tail traffic, as the search phrases are going to shorten.

  • davidcroda

    I agree with the OP about googles data centers. They must have at least doubled if not tripled the number of search queries per day.

    The SEO aspect is interesting. I wonder if people will actively start targetting prefixes of important keywords.

  • Scott Petrovic

    I am on the fence with it. I am in the middle of typing sometimes and it lags because it is trying to do searches. I mostly do long-tail type searches, so having google think after I type every word gets a little annoying at times. I still have a habit of hitting the search button, even after it has done its magic. I guess that is like anything new though.

  • “Even the adverts change.”

    Kaching. If I was paying for the ads that appeared on the first keystroke, I’d be pretty angry.

    In terms of the overall experience, I think it needs a slight delay before updating (eg. don’t update until i’ve hit three keys or paused) and hitting escape should close the dropdown so you can go use the results (you have to hit tab then enter before you can start using keyboard navigation).

  • ricktheartist

    I think it is a slick way of displaying more ads. I am sure that ads that display for a split second are still considered an “impression” that the advertiser will pay for, even though there is no chance of the user clicking the ad. Google got money hungry and packaged it brilliantly as a user benefit.

  • Isn’t this Google Predict – ie. something they actually developed, like, years and years ago?

  • Quote

    Personally, I don’t like it much. I don’t have to be logged in at all for it to work and I find it’s more annoying than anything else. I’d say the same about auto-complete. Sometimes I’ll find something quicker or come across something interesting on the way, but that doesn’t make up for its cons.
    One thing I’d be interested in finding out; if it’s searching up everything as you type, is it logging *all* of it to your ip address? It’s no secret Google logs searches, matching up search strings with ip or reverse dns or whatever, but how exactly does that work with ‘instant search?’

  • Andy Robinson

    Has anyone tried quitting Safari with a Google Instant window still open?

    You get the annoying “Are you sure you want to quit Safari?” warning because you’ve entered text into a form and not submitted it anywhere!

  • Dave

    Well, I gave it a try, but I am not impressed. Actually I think it is more annoying than helping on searches.

    After some time, it can be better as UX can be track and work on, but finally I think this innovation is not that good for too much buzz.

    Privacy, SEO, and overall performance are relevant issues. Those can change a lot the web market – or not even make tickles.

  • imanerd

    I’m not using it because I prefer scrolling over pagination and I can’t change the default setting of 10 results. I do like it otherwise so hopefully that will change.

  • jimmer

    Personally I liked the way it worked before. I only noticed the instant search as I was typing in my query and started to wonder why the screen results were changing about. I prefer to just key in my search term, refine it or whatever, and then click search or hit enter. What time is wasted there? IMO this is the sort of ‘enhancement’ which is not critical and might even annoy some users.

  • egenius

    I turned it off after the first query I tried. Don’t like it and won’t use it even if Google paid me to.

  • Fat bloated AJAX for nothing garbage that does little more than waste bandwidth… and sad part is it’s exactly the type of “gee ain’t it neat” bull that Google’s LACK OF is got the big G where it is today.

    It’s like they forgot the lesson of Jeeves / Ask Jeeves / Ask /whatever they want to call themselves this week. “Gee ain’t it neat” bull is what flushes search engines down the toilet. It’s not bad enough they’ve had the stupid bloated scripting for a year or so, now they’ve gone off the deep end with it.

    Of course that they are actively blocking Opera NOT because it doesn’t work in Opera (as “mask as firefox” proves) but because their HTML/CSS has to be custom tailored to every browser… (a pure sign of coding ineptitude)

    Colour me unimpressed.

  • Annoying as hell IMO. They really need to at least put something in that keeps it from searching anything until you’ve typed a “word”… I really think its stupid that before you’ve had a chance to type anything of significance, its trying to tell you “I’ve found 9M+ results for the letter ‘a'”….. WELL DUH! How is that relevant???

    Not only that, but apparently the spiders (or whatever they are using now to gather results) are coming back with erroneous results… or at least what look like archived results from 2 years ago… its been causing havoc for our office this whole week because its displaying a department name & number as the main company name and number.

  • Actually, I’m ok with it now that I see it working in action… I think it kicked in while I was on holidays and I just noticed it yesterday when I got back to work.

    It hasn’t made things less efficient for me and in some cases it could be quite useful during SEO R&D.

  • Bmorgan1959

    I hate the auto complete and turn it OFF. It is slow and confusing if you type poorly like I do. Google please make it easier to turn off for the non-techy person.