Search engines are the heart of the W eb-surfing experience, some of the most popular and profitable sites on the Internet, and therefore the competition among search engines is fierce. For years Google has been the king of search engines, along the way becoming the most profitable Internet company in history. So if you're Google, what do you do to stay ahead? How do you improve what is already the most popular search engine by a large margin?
A break from convention
To date all search engines have been used the same way: You enter a set of search terms, press Enter, and the search engine returns what it thinks you're looking for, usually sorted so the most likely results are listed first. If the results aren't quite what you want, you modify the search terms and search again. It's so familiar it's become second nature. But Google's new Instant Search has changed that.
What Google has done is changed the way you interact with the search engine. Instead of entering search terms and pressing the Enter key, Google's new Instant Search displays results as you type. That means each keystroke refines the search further and on Instant Search you'll see that with each key you press the list of results instantly updates.
This means that instead of entering a set of search terms and seeing what you get, Instant Search allows you to refine your search interactively: As you type you see what you're getting and you can therefore adjust the search, keystroke by keystroke, so usually a single pass of entering search terms will get you what you want -- no need to keep rewriting and re-entering search terms to refine your results. It really does make the search process considerably quicker and more accurate.
Google claims Instant Search reduces the average time for a search by two to five seconds (from an average of nine seconds). It may not sound like a lot, but in practice it does feel a lot faster, less time spent searching and a quicker return to whatever you were trying to do.
Where it works
Google's Instant Search is already enabled by default at the Google search page, but because it depends on code that runs on the user's machine, it doesn't work on every browser. At present it works only Google's own Chrome browser (of course), Firefox version 3.x, Safari version 5.x, and Internet Explorer 8.x. (Notable by its exception is the popular Opera browser, but presumably that will come along later.)
Google's announcement stated that Instant Search will eventually be available on mobile browsers for smartphones and tablets. (There have been reports of it already being available on Google's own Android mobile browser, but a quick check on an Android smartphone did not confirm that.)
At present Instant Search is only available on Google domains in the U.S., Russia, and most of Europe, later rolling out to other Google domains worldwide. It seems safe to say that Instant Search will eventually become ubiquitous worldwide and across browsers.
Some things to know
One important place where Instant Search is not available is on the built-in search-entry boxes built into almost every browser. Thus to use Instant Search you'll have to point the browser to Google.com and open a search page, and Google has announced no plans to offer it as a built-in feature for browsers. That's probably the major reason why many will end up not using Instant Search -- it's so much more convenient to type search terms into the browser's built-in search box that many won't want to bother opening a Google search page just to use Instant Search.
There are times when Instant Search may turn itself off, such as when it detects that the Internet connection is too slow to support the interactive nature of Instant Search. However, early reports indicate that sometimes it's fooled by transient slowdowns in the Internet connection and turns itself off; in those cases you'll have to re-enable it manually (via a drop-down on the search page).
Sometimes Instant Search just seems not to work. Some of these failures may be due to not allowing enough time for the Google search page to load completely: Because the Instant Search code needs to be downloaded and running on the browser, if the Google search page is not fully loaded it's possible to start entering search terms into the Google search box before Instant Search is ready to start displaying results. Other times it just seems not to enable itself, even on a fast connection, with the reasons not readily apparent.
When the Internet connection is fast enough that Instant Search remains enabled, sometimes it still lags and seems to hesitate, particularly when you backspace and re-enter new terms. In those situations it can to take as much as a few seconds for Instant Search to catch up and start displaying new results. It's still faster than a conventional search, but sometimes it can run into little bumps and snags.
Expecting the expected
One other important thing to note about Instant Search is not about its performance but its internal logic. Instant Search works by trying to anticipate what you're looking for, including completing words as you type. That makes it very fast if what you're looking for is something fairly common and therefore expected, but using Instant Search can become a somewhat jerky process if what you're looking for is something rare or unexpected. Again, the interactive nature of Instant Search may still be helpful, but at times it might be easier just to go back to conventional entry mode and enter search terms without Instant Search intervention.
For more information on Instant Search see Google's Instant Search information page.