Google Instant: Questionable Claims and Killing Competition

I’m sure by now you’ve heard about Google Instant, where Google displays results as you type in your search query rather than waiting for you to finish. (I guess Big G’s mommy never told him it was rude to interrupt.) I’m also not afraid to say that I think this is one of worst features Google has come out with in a while, and that I think their less than fully honest promotional language is particularly gag-worthy.

Background and Google Instant Access

To be fair, I think I should tell you that I don’t have access to Google Instant yet. Why? I have no idea. I should. Everyone around me seems to, so it’s not a geographical thing. But I don’t. (And yes I’m logged in when I search, cleared my cookies and cache, made sure all of my browsers are supported, and made sure auto-complete was turned on in my Google search settings.) That said, I’ve seen plenty through the previews, and I did test it out for myself at someone else’s place recently. The experience was precisely what I expected.

Here’s Google’s short introductory video to Google Instant, in case you haven’t used it yet for yourself.

I have a few separate concerns about Google Instant. I’d like to share them with you today and get your own feedback about whether you love or hate the tool (or fall somewhere in between) or if you share any of these concerns. Here they are:

1. Google’s marketing language isn’t terribly trustworthy.


The big benefit Google is touting about their instant search is their ability to save people time when searching. First of all, that’s flat out untrue. You can’t compare the time spent searching unless both search methods provide exactly the same relevant information the user is searching for. That’s not what happens with Google Instant. Instead you’re given more general results more quickly.

Might you choose to click on them? Sure. But if they don’t have the info you’re looking for, it costs you more time rather than saving it. The whole point of long tail searches is to get the precise information we’re looking for after all.

My real issue though comes with the fact that Google claims they’ve seen “many” searches taking 30-90 seconds to type. Well, when you want to make it sound like a new tool will cut time, it certainly helps marketing-wise to bloat your numbers.

“Many” is not a valid statistical measure. And you’d have to be fairly incompetent a typist to take up to 90 seconds just to type in a search phrase. So… that 2-5 seconds Google Instant claims to save you? Is that off of those bloated estimates based on “many” users or the 9 second search of the “typical user” that they claim? Well, they don’t bother making that clear on the Google Instant info page. Big difference. (You can make a logical assumption they base it on 9 seconds as per the graph on that page claiming “averages,” but since they commit a cardinal sin in statistics presentation of not fully labeling their graph, you’re still left to guess real numbers. Something else interesting to note is that their own graph shows quite a bit of overlap, meaning the current tools were already highly efficient for quite a significant segment of their users — again, specific numbers aren’t made available by them on that graph though.)

Let’s be realistic here — this about getting people to talk about their tool (meaning talking about Google again), rather than saving boatloads of time for users.

google instant
Screenshot of the Google Instant information page, showing the promotional language and stats-deficient graph mentioned in this article, for reference purposes.

2. More issues exist with the “time saving” claim.


Despite the marketing claims of Google Instant saving users time, there are certainly ways it could slow down the search process. For example, if something flashes up onto your screen human nature is to at least glance at it. So basically you could spend several seconds scanning the results that initially come up only to find they’re too generic to be what you’re looking for. That counteracts any claims of a few seconds being saved.

There’s the distraction element too. If the page is constantly changing as you’re attempting to type a search phrase it can be distracting. If you’re already a slow typist (and if Google’s claiming some people are taking a whopping minute or more to type in a phrase, apparently there are plenty of you out there, right?), that distracting ever-changing text could make it even more difficult for you to finish what you were trying to do.

As for the element of prediction, that’s nothing new. For quite some time you could enable that feature, where Google predicts what you’re going to type either based on your past search queries or popular searches. And let me tell you, it doesn’t take 2-5 seconds to hit enter (or even the down arrow once or twice if you need to) to pull up exactly the results page you were looking for from that list. So where exactly is the time saved?

3. Google’s hypocrisy might kill new competition.


In the net neutrality debate we’ve seen Google reps talk about things like making sure there are equal opportunities for “the next Google.” In other words, the Internet should remain open so new online businesses and websites have the same opportunities companies like Google had when they got started. Well, Google Instant is an incredibly hypocritical move by the company, given its ability to make things much more difficult for new Web startups.

What’s the problem? Well, if you’ve ever run a website you know it can be next to impossible to rank well in search engines for shorter, more generic keyword phrases — especially the highly searched ones. For example, a new marketing firm would have a very difficult time ranking for the word “marketing” while they might do very well in the rankings for “Internet marketing firm Dallas.” The longtail keyword searches are new sites’ best opportunities to drive search traffic to their sites, especially early on. More general phrases are usually dominated by much larger, and older, sites.

Now Google is going out of its way to encourage users to bypass longtail search queries in favor of more generic results — the ones already more likely to be dominated by older sites and companies. New players in a niche or industry run the risk of losing out on a lot of search traffic (and ad-driven traffic tied to those longtail phrases through Adwords). So on one hand we have Google saying they care about new startups and giving them a fair shake, and on the other hand we have them promoting a tool that risks doing precisely the opposite.

Those are more than enough reasons for me personally to stay away from Google Instant (if they ever make it available for me that is). But are most of Google’s users tech savvy enough to understand issues like longtail search and potential implications of cutting it out of the process (or at least making it easier to bypass)? Remember, just because you’re familiar with Internet marketing, SEO, and the intricacies of finding exactly what you want on the Web, that doesn’t mean your Average Joe Google user does.

Written by
Jennifer Mattern
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  • I have no use for Google Instant, and disabled it as soon as it became available.

    What bothers me most about this whole fiasco is that they have now made auto-complete a permanent features. I always had auto-complete disabled before, but now my only choices are auto-complete or Google instant.

    I think these new developments have very little to do with saving the user’s time, and everything to do with generating more ad revenue. The accumulation of milliseconds across a millions of users means nothing to the individual searcher, but it means a lot to Google in aggregate. If they can get each user to complete their searches a second faster, that’s more time for their ads to be on-screen.

    • I’m not sure if I understand you correctly. If people are completing searches faster then they’re on Google’s pages for a shorter amount of time. Therefore ads would displayed on such pages less, not more. Like I said, maybe I misunderstood you. Could you clarify please?

  • Nobody mention the wasted network traffic caused by this feature, bigger network traffic increase energy consumption of underlying hardware, so at the end we can say that this is not a “green” feature.

    • At the same time nobody said it was a green feature. And I’m not sure it’s fair to say every feature should be. That isn’t very realistic. And to anyone that worried about going green, I’d have to ask why they’re on a computer reading and commenting on blogs in the first place. After all, that’s also an increase in energy consumption. Would that be a ridiculous argument? Of course it is. But so is complaining about a tech company using more resources to grow their products. Now I’m not a huge fan of Google. But they do much more than some other large companies to stay reasonably environmentally friendly. And I think a complaint like this is little more than nit picking.