Google real-time search: 6 min. to spot quake

A minor Silicon Valley earthquake sets Twitter abuzz. A few minutes later, Google surfaces the event in its search results.

Stephen Shankland Former Principal Writer
Stephen Shankland worked at CNET from 1998 to 2024 and wrote about processors, digital photography, AI, quantum computing, computer science, materials science, supercomputers, drones, browsers, 3D printing, USB, and new computing technology in general. He has a soft spot in his heart for standards groups and I/O interfaces. His first big scoop was about radioactive cat poop.
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Stephen Shankland
3 min read

At 10:09:36 a.m. PST, a modest but noticeable magnitude 4.1 earthquake rattled the San Francisco Bay Area. Six minutes later, Google's real-time search system had spotted the activity and spiced up its search results accordingly.

(Update 7:44 p.m. PST: Google said it actually started showing the real-time results for the earthquake less than 2 minutes afterward. One possible reason it was apparently later for me is that I'm in Detroit, using a different data center from people in the Bay Area, the company said.)

Earthquakes and plane crashes are among the quintessential examples of a sudden event that produces lots of online chatter, so as soon as I heard about the quake I thought it would be a good time to see how Google handled it.

A Twitter search for "earthquake" was immediately inundated with tweets about the event as the Bay Area's digitally active population uttered a collective exclamation about the event. I immediately searched Google for "earthquake" afterward and refreshed the search until I spotted the in-page scrolling list of real-time results.

The lag was 6 minutes, which struck me as fairly impressive for such a mammoth operation as Google search. However, I'd venture to suggest it wasn't the most demanding test: the earthquake event probably was conveniently located in a digitally hip area; the single word "earthquake" was virtually universally used; and it's the kind of widespread event everybody cares about to some degree, as opposed to something like expiring celebrities, sports results, or gadget launches that only subsets of the population notice.

Google boasted that its real-time search produces not only fast-response results but also high relevance. However, I have to say that many of the items that scrolled past--Whooo, earthquake in Northern Cali!"--struck me as not much of an improvement over Twitter's time-based results. Google also salted up the results with other material--a quick Palo Alto Online story on the quake as well as an earthquake preparation story in the Uxbridge Gazette in the U.K.

Google search shows earthquake-related search results after a quake near San Francisco.
Google search shows earthquake-related search results after a quake near San Francisco. Screenshot by Stephen Shankland/CNET

You can argue, though, that just seeing the scrolling real-time result is helpful to tip people off that something is going on right now they might want to be aware of.

A couple other data points struck me here, too.

First, though the first real-time scrolling results showed about 6 minutes afterward, it took another 6 minutes before it showed in my browser when I logged out of my Google account. I'm in Detroit right now, which struck me as the likely explanation; my Google account locates me in San Francisco. With Google now personalizing every search result, Google account or no, different people see different results.

Second, it took until 24 minutes afterward for me to see a link to the United States Geological Survey's online result in the search results, though I confess I wasn't paying close attention to when it first arrived. It wasn't there at the outset, though.

I'll avoid passing final judgment on Google's real-time search based on one person's look at one event, but the data points were still intriguing to me.