Google Instant Search: Is it an Improvement?

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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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