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Google Instant: Search revolution or baseless hype?


On Wednesday 8 September, Google launched its newest search innovation called Instant, which is said to be “faster than the speed of type“.

Many of you will have already played around with this instantaneous (and slightly dizzying) search experience over the past few days, and if you weren’t so offended by yet another cause for information overload, you are probably already liking it.

If you haven’t yet noticed this update to Google’s search page (who knows, you might be one of those wierdies who actually prefer Bing), the Instant functionality brings users search results while they are still typing.

Most of the time, the engine will deliver the right website you are looking for before you even get to complete the keyword, eliminating the need to hit the Enter key. For example, to find Anthill on Google all you need to do is type “Anthi” and stop.

Here’s a fun video to provide a visual example.

Google Instant Explained in Song

You’d think the story ends here? Well, that’s just the beginning.

The moment Google unveiled its novelty technology it inspired a young Stanford student named Feross Aboukhadijeh to create an Instant search experience for Youtube that blinked through its video archive for instant results.

He posted his work on Hacker News (a.k.a. Y-Combinator, or the Mecca for Coders) and within 24 hours — in what quickly became the topic of global internet chatter — Feross received a tweet directly from Youtube CEO Chad Hurley asking “Are you ready to leave school?”

The story spurred a flurry of hackers converting every existing online application to Instant — most for the thrill of the challenge, rather than to seek job offers. And in another 24 hours a stream of Unofficial Instant Services were born:

  • Google Maps Instant,
  • Google Image Instant,
  • Hacker News Instant,
  • Twitter Instant, PHP Instant; and,
  • Techmeme Instant.

(To name just a few)

Fans even created their own website Instantise.com to home all these Instant off-spring apps.

Isn’t this a Yahoo! innovation?

So what’s with all this hype? Is this great march toward instant online experiences the result of a new technology revolution? Apparently not.

Only this week, I witnessed a fellow Melbourne coder and cofounder of Crowdmass, Tim Wu, hacking up a Yahoo Instant (with a “I’m Feeling Lucky” twist) in a matter of two hours!

Yes, two hours, that’s all it took.

Further digging revealed that the engineers at Yahoo! did actually come up with a similar instant search functionality (without the “I’m Feeling Lucky” twist) five years before Google, called Livesearch.

What happened there? Stephen Hood, who was a product manager on Yahoo!’s search team in 2005 said in his blog after the 8 September Google launch:

“Yahoo would not let us ship LiveSearch on yahoo.com or as a part of Yahoo’s search engine. Instead we were only allowed to launch it on AllTheWeb, a smaller, lower-traffic search engine that Yahoo had acquired years earlier and largely left to atrophy. (In comparison, Google just launched it on google.com. Boom.)”

Sure, the world five years ago was very different from the way things are today, and perhaps it wasn’t quite the right time to introduce something as radical as Instant. Perhaps the processing power of our computers and the strength of our broadband networks weren’t up to the task. Perhaps Yahoo! made the right decision not to launch Livesearch in 2005.

But even in today’s sophisticated online environment Google’s decisiveness to go ahead with Instant Search involves some remarkable risk taking. There was no public beta, no secondary website to test the concept out. Instant Search was installed and directly replaced the single most critical service of the Google empire – Search.

Search revolution or baseless hype? You tell me.