Google has started refreshing search results while people type queries, which could usher in major changes for end users, advertisers and publishers.
Announced last night, Google Instant presents and adjusts search results and their accompanying ads on the fly as users enter search terms in the search engine's box.
The intention is to compress the loop of entering queries, scanning the search results, refining the query and checking the new results, a process that may be repeated multiple times and sometimes leads to frustration.
The feature is undeniably a computer engineering tour-de-force, but it remains to be seen how it will be accepted by end users and what impact it will have on ad performance and efficiency, as well as on the visibility of organic search results.
Developing such a groundbreaking and bold feature shows that, at Google, the search business remains king, even when the company plays in a broad range of markets.
"Google is clearly doubling down on its heritage: search, which it does really, really well," said analyst Charlene Li of Altimeter Group in a phone interview.
According to Google, Instant isn't "search as you type" but rather "search before you type" because the engine is anticipating and predicting the most likely query the user intends to key in.
As Google rolls out the feature, sophisticated users are more likely to embrace it than are ordinary ones, as the former understand the convenience and time savings while the latter may feel disconcerted, at least initially.
"It's an improvement, and represents greater efficiency and convenience for people who are accustomed to using search," said analyst Greg Sterling of Sterling Market Intelligence in a phone interview. "But there is this blinking-light effect, with the way the page changes as you proceed with the character entry, that may be a bit disorienting to more ordinary users."
Li said the on-the-fly changes may initially trigger "a sense of vertigo", but predicted that Google will be proactive about tweaking the feature as necessary, possibly adding some delays to the page refreshes, if many people find it distracting. Overall, the net result should be positive for users, she said.
Hadley Reynolds, an IDC analyst, sees big potential in speeding up the process of refining queries, which he calls the "pogo stick" problem.
"Google Instant will help show what the right links are more quickly," he said. "Google Instant will take some getting used to. But I think most users will adjust to the changes and come to like Google's tightening up of the search experience and all the guidance that will be presented to them."
Perhaps anticipating some resistance, Google is giving users the option of turning off Google Instant, which for now will be limited to general web searches on Google.com in the US for all users, and in a few other countries, including the UK, for users signed into their Google accounts. It will be launched later for all users worldwide, as well as in mobile devices. It's not clear if and when it will be added to Google vertical engines, such as Image, News, Maps and Books search.
As users interact differently with search result pages, this could require an adjustment in how site publishers optimize their pages for Google organic rankings and in how advertisers refine their search marketing campaigns, analysts said.
"Users will look at pages much more quickly. That will necessarily dictate different approaches to trying to rank," Sterling said. "It may make SEO opportunities more narrow somehow."
In a press statement, officials from the Greenlight search and social marketing agency argued that some sites may see a drop in organic rankings and traffic if they have optimised their pages for long, multiword queries, which Google Instant may make less effective.
They also warned that marketers could suffer harm in their Google quality scores because of an increase in ad impressions that are not clicked on, as ads will be refreshed multiple times while a query is typed in.
Reynolds doesn't anticipate major disruptions for publishers and marketers, although he does acknowledge that end-user behaviour inevitably will change. "Those changes could open up room for innovation in getting content in front of users in the 'instant' environment," he said.
Ultimately, competing search providers, such as Microsoft, Yahoo and Ask.com, will have to provide a comparable experience to Google Instant, Reynolds said.
"Google Instant shows that Google is very intent on continuing to dominate the Web search space - both in technology and user traffic," he added.