Google Instant: A Mobile App Approach to Search

Google (s GOOG) launched today a revision of its core search technology called Google Instant. Instant turns search into an application; on a single page it combines the traditional process of entering a query into a box, hitting return, and landing on a new page populated with search results. Instant acts and feels like a mobile app, and in my opinion would make more sense if it was one. Instead, it was launched as an tweak to Google’s web site.

The goal of Instant to make search faster by interpreting and displaying what searchers are likely to want on a character-by-character basis before they even finish typing a query. Google estimates the process saves 2-5 seconds per search. The company said at a launch event in San Francisco today it plans to roll out Instant to all users globally soon, starting on the web and moving to other platforms like mobile and browser toolbars. Google is treating Instant as a major launch, not an opt-in beta like many of its other new products.

Instant is a web site, but in many ways it acts more like a mobile application you’d find on your iPhone (s AAPL) or Android handset.

How Instant is Like an App:

  • Shortcuts. Apps are simplified and directed versions of the web. Instant guesses at what you want to know to save you time. Instant gives you answers, not options to choose from. (Google competitor Bing (s MSFT) is doing this too, but its approach is a bit more brittle because it relies on trusted sources rather than dynamically computing the wisdom of the crowd.)
  • Personalization. Each version of a mobile app knows who its main user is — whether it’s to remember your high score, keep you logged into to your social network, or hold your place in an article. On Instant, when you start typing to ask Google a question, it will not only show results for what other users are likely to be looking for, but what it thinks you personally are likely to be looking for.
  • Context. Mobile apps make use of information about your location and state from GPS and other cues. Instant also uses your location within the nearest metro area based on your IP address. Soon, the feature will also include a user’s web history (this was included in tests, but removed for the launch because it wasn’t ready yet, said a spokesperson).
  • All-in-one. Instant runs in AJAX on a web page, so the user never has to wait for a new page to load. This is in alignment with Google’s preference for HTML5 apps over native ones specific to one of many competing operating systems.

Still, there are downsides to apps; they are sort of like the web with training wheels. Some of us would rather explore further and more freely than an app permits. Instant could reduce serendipitous discoveries of barely known web sites that don’t ever make it to the top search result. As Instant spreads to the browser, it will give Google even more centralized control over how we experience the web.

Sign Me Up for Instant Mobile

The ascendancy of the app mentality is, of course, directly correlated to the rise of smartphones. On a mobile device, time is of the essence, and every character is an opportunity for a fat-fingered typo. With its speed and algorithmic intuition, Instant would obviously be an exceptionally useful tool on a phone (and a tablet, too!). Google’s Marissa Mayer said the company expects to launch Instant for mobile in the fall.

The problem is, mobile networks aren’t really ready for Instant. After the launch presentation at the SFMOMA today, Google product managers showed off demos of Instant on computers as well as a Droid 2. The employee demoing Instant said it was recommended for use on Wi-Fi; it would work pretty well on 3G; and not really at all on EDGE. That’s because Instant is incredibly demanding; the AJAX interface requires constant communication with Google’s servers to autocomplete results on a letter-by-letter basis without refreshing the page. This is a mobile app before its time.

Is a Dying Platform?

Instant’s timing isn’t really great for the web either. Though Google may have 1 billion users on its site per week, their searches don’t necessarily start on Every browser has a search toolbar, which circumvents going to the Google (or Bing, or someone else’s) homepage to start their search process. Mayer said that Google wants to launch Instant into browsers as soon as in “the next few months.”

It seems toolbar search isn’t just an early adopter behavior; much of Google’s search traffic doesn’t come through its homepage these days. After Google declined to provide its own stats, I asked a bunch of measurement firms for their breakdowns of where Google searches originate. So far, the ad network Chitika got back to me to say that in an analysis of its traffic today (which is primarily in the U.S. and Canada), just 18 percent of Google’s traffic came from its home page. Chitika research director Dan Ruby told us he believes the majority of Google traffic comes from browser toolbars, and recently estimated that 9 percent of all search observed by Chitika originates from the Google search box in Firefox.

As a user, I’m definitely in awe of Instant’s speed, but I don’t see myself changing my toolbar searching habits to load up Instant should be woven into the software platforms and operating systems where we access the Internet today and in the future — rather than those of the the past. When Google launches Instant on mobile and in the browser we’ll get a better idea of its potential impact. And with their touch interface, lack of keyboard, and orientation towards content consumption, tablets are where Instant could really shine.