Google Instant: Quick, Quick, Quick–But Not Psychic

If it's the NBA legend that you seek, typing "w" doesn't get you there. Nor did typing "wi"-that pulled up info about Wikipedia.

instant-wi

Typing an "l" got me results concerning a local radio station...

instant-wil

Typing "t" revealed "wilt chamberlain" in the list of suggestions, but not in the results...

instant-wilt

Only when I typed a space did Chamberlain-related results show up.

instant-wiltspace
Now, typing five characters to get results about Wilt Chamberlain isn't too shabby. It's certainly more efficient than typing his entire name and hitting Enter. Except for one thing: If I did the search the old-fashioned way, Google would only return Wilt-related links. With Google Instant, it showed me links about the weather in San Francisco, Wikipedia, a radio station, cake, air conditioning, and a town in Connecticut first.

Because Instant is so instant, all these extraneous results fly by in a jiffy-they're not costing you any meaningful time. (At today's event, Google made much of the notion that Instant is going to save the world millions of hours each year, in a way that reminded me of the famous story about Steve Jobs arguing that faster Mac bootups save lives.) But for me, at least, Instant involves some minor cognitive payback. It's not magical: I'm doing some of the heavy mental lifting myself, by glancing at the search suggestions and results and continuing to type until I know that Google understands me. Old-fashioned Google search, by contrast, involves one mental task-type a query and press Enter-rather than several small ones.

Oh, and I rarely go to Google.com anyhow-I do almost all my searching in browser address bars or search fields. I doubt that whatever time Instant saves could be worth the effort of retraining my fingertips to go to Google.com until the new interface works everywhere that Google does.

So far, I haven't found Instant to be the great leap forward that Google seems to think it is. But neither does it feel like a New Coke-syle fiasco. For one thing, the change isn't being forced down anyone's throat: It's easy to turn it off and go back to classic Google search. There's also an easy way to split the difference between Google Instant and old Google: Rather than paying attention to search suggestions and results, you can just type your entire search query. And then stop. You'll get the results you would have seen in the old days, without having to press Enter and wait for them to show up.

It's also important to remember that Instant is also a starting point rather than a conclusion-the Google honchos at the event repeatedly said that the search engine gets hundreds of tweaks a year to improve its quality. That means that the Google Instant of September 2011 could be an improvement on the current one in both obvious and subtle ways.

I'm going to leave Instant on and live with it-and I'm curious what you think.

Subscribe to the Best of PCWorld Newsletter

Comments