Google tech tweak reveals plan for faster search

What's a search engine referrer string? You probably don't need to know. But when Google changed its string, it showed a plan to display search results more quickly.

It was the kind of detail that only experts in Web traffic analysis could love, but a technical change Google is making turns out to reveal something a lot more people care about: faster search results.

Stephen Shankland/CNET

Specifically, Google is trying out a new way to present search results that uses the JavaScript programming language and the related Ajax interface technology, not just regular HTML, to display the information, Google spokesman Eitan Bencuya said.

The reason: with the Ajax-enhanced search results, JavaScript is used to load the actual search results beneath the unchanging boilerplate above, a tactic that means only the search results need to be loaded on subsequent searches.

"These guys are working hard to make things milliseconds faster. They're always experimenting," Bencuya said.

A few thousandths of a second--trivial, right? Wrong. Google found that shaving a smidgen off the time it takes to show results means that people search more often , and more searches means more opportunities to show search ads.

To provide fast results, Google already uses 700 to 1,000 servers to field each query , so a little speed-up on the browser side of the process can be a relatively cheap way to get an edge.

OK, then, how did this all come to light? On the Google Analytics blog Tuesday, team member Brett Crosby announced a change Google plans to make to the "referrer" code that it passes on to a Web site when somebody clicks a link in the search result.

Those who use their own Web analytics software to observe how their search ads are performing--such as tracking when a Google search sent visitors to their Web site, and what they were searching for when they did--will need to update their software to accommodate the change.

It's an arcane tweak, to be sure, but Alex Chitu of the unofficial Google Operating System blog put the pieces together on Wednesday, guessing that the change had to do with how Google presented its search engine results page.

Specifically, he dug up a March video post by Google's Matt Cutts explaining why a Google experiment in presenting search results had shut off referrer traffic in February.

Bencuya confirmed on Wednesday that the referrer change was indeed motivated by the need to fix the experiment's unintended side effect.

"We made this change so we can continue experimenting with different kinds of test results and not break links in the future," Bencuya said.

He wouldn't comment on plans to bring the Ajax change to a broader set of users.



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