Google Instant: Breaking It, Gaming It, and The Future

If you were within fourteen miles of the Internet yesterday, you probably heard about Google’s new search engine feature, Google Instant. Google announced it about 1pm EST, and for the rest of the day my Twitter and Hootsuite feeds were filled with opinion, derision, experiments, and arguments over whether Google Instant means the death of SEO or not. (I am strictly on the user end of search and don’t involve myself with SEO much — but no, Google Instant does not mean the death of SEO. It’ll change, certainly, but not die.)

What It Is

Google Instant is available at http://www.google.com/instant/, or just from the regular Google page. I thought you had to be logged in to a Google account to use Instant, but a quick test shows that this does not appear to be the case. Start typing your search. Google will try to guess what you’re looking for and provide search results as you type. If you start typing Roll Over Beethoven, Google will provide you with relevant results even before you finish typing the phrase.

Video and audio content are integrated with the results, and related searches are at the bottom of the page. In fact aside from the instant refreshing, Google Instant’s results look very much like non-instant search results. The complaint about Google Instant that I’ve read the most is that Google’s anticipated searches and refreshed results are irritating and unwelcome. It’s easy to turn that off. In fact, it’s pretty easy to make Google Instant not work.

Making It Break

You might not want Google to decide what you’re searching for as you’re typing. You can stop Google doing that by putting a + in front of a query as you begin to type. If you do that, Google will refresh its results to ONLY what you’re looking for, and not what Google THINKS you’re looking for. (Depending on what your query is, this can also be a fun exploration down the rabbit hole; see yesterday’s article Turning Google Instant into a Quick Head Trip for details.)

Google Instant does not play nicely with certain search syntax, either. The query intitle:boogie works fine (though starting a query with syntax also seems to break Google’s suggested search results) but if you add the site: syntax, Google Instant gives up and stops. Try the query physics site:edu and Google stops showing any results at all, with the morose message “Press Enter to search.” (I think that’s Googlese for “You have completely confused me and I’m not going to play anymore.”)

Specifically excluding words seems to stop Google’s anticipatory behavior as well, though starting a query with an exclusion makes Google just sit there. (You can’t search for -mice, for example, and get a result.)

Google Instant retains a behavior that its old counterpart had which irritated me a lot. It tries to correct your search even when you know what you’re looking for. For example, if I start looking for Carolynn Jones, Google will decide that of course I must have meant Carolyn Jones, and will give me the results for the actress. You can stop Google doing that the same way you can stop the autosuggestions, by putting a + before your first query word.

Of course, you don’t have to go through all this trouble if you simply don’t want to use Google Instant; you can turn it off by going to Google Preferences, or by looking for the “Instant is on” pulldown menu and changing it to “Instant is off.”

Gaming It

Google has always had particular search quirks which are still available under Google Instant, only now they’re more fun. Want chicken for dinner? Looking for recipes? Interested in broiling but willing to consider other options? Make broiling the heaviest word in your search — that is, use it multiple times. If you use a word multiple times in a query, Google will, I think, look for the word multiple times in the search results, changing how they look. Typing chicken broil broil broil broil broil broil broil broil broil changes the results steadily and drops the result count lower and lower. Type in one more broil and the result count jumps back up again.

The word order will also change how your results appear. beer chicken shows a different set of results than chicken beer; the thing is it’s hard to switch a query word order without retyping it. (Is this something a Greasemonkey script could do?)

Google also has a sort-of wildcard/proximity functionality using the * symbol. It used to be that one * equaled one word; Therefore searching for “three * * * mice” would find the word three within three words of mice. Now it’s more ambiguous and I generally only use one * at a time. Google Instant seems to search the * okay; if I look for “I am * man” Google doesn’t suggest “I am Iron Man,” but rather what appears to be a song called “I am Man.” Furthermore, Google finds both “I am Man” phrases and phrases with an additional word, like “I am That man.”

Google doesn’t appear to have much in the line of stop words, either. +the will show you a 14 billion result count, and +a will show you an 18 billion result count.

For the Future

Google Instant is being touted as a big time saver. Eh, I don’t see it, not from the desktop. It’s not that I don’t do that many searches (actually I tried to figure out how many searches I do on a daily basis and kind of startled myself.) It’s just that it doesn’t take me nine seconds to type a search query to start with. And if many people are typing in only one or two words I can’t see that it’s taking them nine seconds either.

But I can see where instant search would be really useful on a mobile phone. Searching on a mobile is very slow. If I had enough of a data connection on my phone to allow for suggestion and search result preloads, that would be fantastic.

I would also like to be able to slant Google Instant results. Say I’m researching lung transplants. I would like to be able to go to a relevant page, like a Wikipedia article, and tell Google to use the context of that page to slant its suggestions and results as I search. Not sure if that’s what Google Instant is really for, but if you want to talk about something that would be a time-saver….

Around the Web

As you might imagine Google Instant has precipitated a lot of comments from all quarters of the Web. For a view of it from inside Google, check out Matt Cutts’ blog post. Alexandra Petri says it makes her “nervous and jittery.” (Well, Google did call a recent update “Caffeine.”)

Microsoft Watch considers what Google Instant means to Bing. (Bing seems to me to not being going for search innovation, but instead to be focus on intelligently integrating content into regular Web search. Which is smart, and which it’s doing well.) CNET wonders if Google Instant will be useful to mobile users. (Um, YES.) The Atlantic looks at the pros and cons of Google Instant and busts out the Gloom and Doom Burgers.

Not me; I’ll stay here peacefully chewing the Cheese Sandwich of Context. Yes, Google Instant is different, and it’s going to change the way we behave when we search. Whole philosophies will spring up around making the use of this new tool. But we must absolutely not forget one thing: Google Instant is one step. One step in the evolution of our relationship with this huge data collection we’re gathering. In two years things will be different. In ten years things will be radically different. Yes, we will change as search changes. But it is my firm belief that search will always evolve more to accommodate us, and not the other way around.

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