Google Instant Turbocharges Search

Today Google (s goog) announced Google Instant — a “fundamental shift” in search — where results are displayed before a user finishes typing a query. We’re covering the launch event at San Francisco’s MOMA, and will be updating this post as it proceeds. You can try the new search here and learn more about it here.

Google Instant is an expansion of Google Suggest, but instead of just hinting to the user what you might want to type, the site now autocompletes the query and displays results it thinks you might be searching for. You don’t have to finish typing or hit enter to see results. If you type the letter “w,” Google will instantly display what it thinks you’re most likely to be searching for: the weather for your area.

Much of the action that previously happened on a search results page now is contained within Google’s search box, and the search results page isn’t a separate page anymore (it uses AJAX to launch within the same page chrome). Google autofills its guess at what you’re typing in gray types within the search box, and if you scroll down through those suggestions, the search results (including images, videos and detailed snippets) on the page below change. You can still click on the search button if you’re nostalgic or habit-driven, but that action been rendered unnecessary.

If the average search takes 25 seconds, Google has already worked to aggressively to reduce the time it takes to show results, and even tried to optimize the network time through Google Chrome and its nascent fiber-to-the-home projects. But 24 of those 25 seconds are spent on the user coming up with the query (9 seconds) and scanning results (15 seconds), said VP of search products Marissa Mayer. Instant is aimed to cut down on that user time.

The changes are meant to be “fun, fast and interactive,” said Mayer. She contended that the feature will save 350 million hours of user time in the next year. “It’s not quite psychic, but it is very clever,” said software engineer Othar Hansson. Mayer said that Google had actually joked about psychic search engines for its April Fool’s joke in 2000, calling the gag “Google MentalPlex.”

Google Instant effectively increases the demand on Google Search by as much as 20x, said distinguished engineer Ben Gomes. The average search query has 20 characters, and Google Instant now completes a search every time a user types in a character. In order for Google to withstand such a dramatic increase to the more than 1 billion searches it already handles per day, the company made efforts to prioritize searches, understand user states, and overhaul its results caching system.

Google Instant will first be rolled out in the U.S., UK, France, Germany, Italy, Spain and Russia on Chrome 5 and 6, Firefox 3, Safari 5 for Mac and Internet Explorer 8. It is coming to mobile devices in the fall and will eventually be included in Google Chrome. Instant will automatically turn itself off on slower Internet connections, and it won’t display terms Google determines are “violence, hate and pornography.” Google executives brushed off questions about how SEO and search advertising will be affected by Instant. The company is now counting a three-second pause on an Instant page (or any user action/click) as a valid impression.

Google now has 1 billion users per week, said Mayer. The company has made more than 500 changes to ranking and the user interface already in 2010, she said, including Caffeine (a faster system for indexing the web), Google real-time search, spelling corrections, answers on top of Google search, starred search, and left-hand navigation.

Related content from GigaOM Pro (sub req’d):

With Caffeine, Google Reveals Challenges of Real Time