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Instant search a new option in the familiar order of Google domination

By Rob Pegoraro
Sunday, September 12, 2010; G03

Searching the Web hasn't changed all that much over the past 15 years: You type words describing what you're looking for, hit the Enter key, and look through the results that a search engine presents to you. Sites have changed their presentation and style and made themselves accessible on mobile devices, but the central ritual of Web search hasn't changed much since the days when Yahoo was a research project hosted on a Stanford University server.

Last week, Google introduced a feature to its Web search that breaks with that tradition -- an option called Google Instant that shows you search results before you even finish typing a query.

Google Instant (http://google.com/instant) is a somewhat logical extension of the "auto-complete" feature that it and other search sites offer, which suggests search queries matching what you've typed so far. It also makes a vaguely frightening statement about our collective attention span online -- and how much Google claims to know about our interests.

Instant works like this: If you run a modern browser (Mozilla Firefox 3.0 or newer, Microsoft's Internet Explorer 8, Apple's Safari 5 and version 5 or newer of Google's Chrome) and start typing a query on Google's home page, the site will display links matching your query after you've typed the first letter.

For example, typing just "w" yielded links showing the current weather for the District. Revising and extending that query to "wa" caused Google to spotlight links for Wal-Mart; "was" yielded links to The Washington Post's Web properties.

It didn't take long for Google users to start comparing how many keystrokes it takes to be pointed to one site vs. another -- turning the practice of Googling yourself into even more of a competitive sport.

But Instant's results, like Google's ordinary results, may be tailored to users' location. A friend in Portland, Ore., found that "k" yielded info about one of the city's TV stations; here, it directed me to pages about Kings Dominion.

Instant also shies away from providing previews to objectionable content. Attempting to type more than the first half of a four-letter word beginning with "f" caused Google to stop suggesting links.

The Mountain View, Calif., company seems quite proud of the time Google Instant can save, bragging that this option "saves the average searcher two to five seconds per search."

Is that really Instant's primary selling point? Have we become some race of info-hamsters, running ever faster on our exercise wheels.

The thought that we must save a few seconds in a Web search is enough to make one yearn for the quiet, calm (and often frustrating) routine of thumbing through a library's printed card catalogue.

Instant looks more interesting when seen as a way to turn a search into a conversation: You type a query, see what Google suggests for a match, then revise, check its suggestions again, revise further, and so on. Except, instead of having to click the "Back" button or hit the backspace key, all this happens on one page. It can become a weirdly compelling sort of man-machine synthesis.

But the more conversations you get into with Google, the more the site can learn about your interests, especially if you're signed into a Gmail account while you search.

You can opt out of Instant in any given search by clicking the "Instant is on" menu to the right of Google's search and selecting "Off," or you can disable it for all searches in your Google account's search preferences.

You can also avoid Instant by using the search form at the top of your browser -- what I normally employ myself. But Google says it will bring Instant to those search shortcuts, and to Google's mobile software and services, in the coming months.

To judge from the negative tone of many reader comments about Instant, there's an opening for Google's competition. And for once, Google's foremost competitor has the resources to pose a serious challenge.

That company, Microsoft, launched its surprisingly good Bing site last year; has since been quietly rolling out such useful tweaks as specialized searches for lyrics, music, videos and games; and recently took over providing search results for Yahoo.

But Bing and Yahoo combined trail far behind Google. In ComScore's numbers for July, its most recent, both sites had gained only a fraction of a percent in market share from the month before, adding up to 28.1 percent of the U.S. market. Google, meanwhile, held 65.8 percent.

That's not an easy lead to overcome, especially when you consider how most Web users get accustomed to using the same search site every day.

Here's where I have to note that I didn't pluck those ComScore figures from an e-mail waiting in my inbox; I had to look on the Web for them. And despite my professional interest in keeping up to date with all the major competitors in this market, I almost instinctively went to the same search site as ever: Google.

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