Live at Google's search event: Google Instant

Google plans to host a search event featuring top executives and engineers Wednesday, and we're providing live coverage in this post.

Tom Krazit Former Staff writer, CNET News
Tom Krazit writes about the ever-expanding world of Google, as the most prominent company on the Internet defends its search juggernaut while expanding into nearly anything it thinks possible. He has previously written about Apple, the traditional PC industry, and chip companies. E-mail Tom.
Tom Krazit
17 min read

Editor's note: We used Cover It Live for this event, so if you missed the live blog, you can still replay it in the embedded component below. Replaying the event will give you all the live updates along with commentary from our readers and CNET editor Josh Lowensohn. For those of you who just want the updates, we've included them in regular text here. To get the key points from today's announcement, you can check out our summary of what got announced, in our story here.

SAN FRANCISCO--Google's taking over the Museum of Modern Art in downtown San Francisco Wednesday for a search event involving some of the company's top engineers, and we're covering the event live right here. And behold: the company is revving up its search results with the new Google Instant technology.

You can follow our up-to-the-minute coverage using the Cover It Live module embedded below. You can also watch Google's own live stream of the event on YouTube. The event, which started at 9:30 a.m. PDT, is expected to run until about 11:00 a.m.

Google search event
Attendees at Google's search event Wednesday were treated to a light show a la 1990. James Martin/CNET

9:22 a.m. PDT: This is the trippiest press conference I've been to so far in my career.

9:24 a.m.: Google has taken over a theater at Museum of Modern Art with three large screens set up on three sides of the room, playing trippy ambient music and displaying screen-saver-like animations set to the music.

It's like a Pink Floyd laser light show from the early '90s.

9:25 a.m. (from reader Michael): Just to let everyone know...they're streaming it at https://www.youtube.com/google

Watch this: Google launches "instant" search results

9:26 a.m.: We're expecting Google to launch some sort of "streaming" search results page, a search results page that changes as you type letters. This could be very interesting or nauseating, depending on how it's implemented. We'll have to wait and see.

Here's some background: http://news.cnet.com/8301-30684_3-20014473-265.html

9:26 a.m. (from Josh Lowensohn): Maybe you're being brainwashed, Tom.

9:27 a.m.: There are a bunch of letters flying around with the images. Dude, where's my car?

Honestly, the effect is a little weird. Like Tron mixed with letters.

9:28 a.m. (from reader Surat): You can already try the streaming interface here: http://www.google.com/webhp?sclient=psy

9:28 a.m.: Anyway, we're about set to begin, the last stragglers are filing into the theater. Udi Manber is the highest-ranking executive I've spotted so far (basically, head of search) but we know Marissa Mayer will be leading the event.

9:31 a.m. (from Josh Lowensohn): YouTube video of it here.

9:31 a.m.: Google appears to have scooped itself.

9:32 a.m.: Assuming this is legit: "Google Instant is a new search enhancement that shows results as you type. We are pushing the limits of our technology and infrastructure to help you get better search results, faster. Our key technical insight was that people type slowly, but read quickly, typically taking 300 milliseconds between keystrokes, but only 30 milliseconds (a tenth of the time!) to glance at another part of the page. This means that you can scan a results page while you type."

9:34 a.m.: Still waiting for the event to begin.

9:37 a.m.: The event gets under way as Gabriel Stricker of Google PR comes on stage. If you have questions for Google, you can submit them at the Google channel on YouTube.

Gabriel Stricker
Gabriel Stricker James Martin/CNET

9:39 a.m.: Stricker highlights CEO Eric Schmidt's comments from a keynote in Berlin yesterday: "never underestimate the importance of fast." With that, Marissa comes on stage.

9:40 a.m.: She thanks everybody for coming in, and starts by recapping some of the things Google has done with search this year. Over 1 billion users each week visit Google, which she says makes Google one of the most-used services--not just Internet services--in the world. She moves on to talk about Google's penchant for making near-constant changes to the Google UI, which gave us a sense of Google Instant a few weeks back.

9:42 a.m.: Caffeine was one of the major updates this year, a much faster index than Google previously used. Google also launched real-time search results at the end of 2009, and a bunch of smaller features like timeline views. Mayer's in full-fledged review of Google's product launches this year, but I'm wondering what the count is on the side of the screen, scrolling upward. It's about to cross 4,000, and I'm thinking it's the number of searches on Google Instant to date.

Marissa Mayer talks Google search history.
Marissa Mayer talks Google search history. James Martin/CNET

9:43 a.m.: She's still rolling on with background info, highlighting the redesign Google rolled out earlier this year.

Google history lesson.
Google history lesson. James Martin/CNET

9:45 a.m.: Now we get to see the Super Bowl ad again. Come on, Google, if you're going to push the actual product feature live already, don't bore us with review for 15 minutes.

9:47 a.m.: Now Mayer's getting closer, pointing out the two doodles that launched over the week. "Today's announcement is a fundamental shift in search," Mayer said, before moving into more background about how people have discovered information over the centuries. Marissa reminds us that in 1935, there was no Internet, and you had to go to a place called a "library" to search for information. Never heard of it.

Marissa Mayer and Femme au Chapeau
Marissa Mayer and Femme au Chapeau James Martin/CNET

9:48 a.m.: The telephone sped up the ability to find information, and, of course, the Web made it much faster in 1995. But Web pages of the '90s were static pages, which weren't necessarily updated very often. Today, the Internet can produce information in real-time.

9:50 a.m.: Google serves up results in 300 milliseconds, Mayer says, but the entire process of getting a result can take longer. Nine seconds to enter a query, 400 milliseconds of networking time to send the query and result, and time to select a result.

James Martin/CNET

9:51 a.m.: Google has tried to make that query-selection and selecting-results process much faster, with things like auto-complete. Still, not everybody types quickly, and "there's a physical speed for thinking," she says. What could be faster? Google Instant.

9:52 a.m.: 20 minutes into the presentation, we've reached the meat. Google is now moving into demo mode of Google Instant. As expected, it's a search-results page that changes as you type letters.

Marissa Mayer introduces Google Instant.
Marissa Mayer introduces Google Instant. James Martin/CNET

James Martin/CNET

9:53 a.m.: The main Google.com page has not changed, but when you start typing a query into that bar, Google will take you right to a search-results page. Mayer typed "sfm" and it brought her right to a page of results for SF MoMA. She then refines the query for a specific painting, and it changes the results.

Google Instant search demo
Google Instant search demo James Martin/CNET

9:55 a.m.: Moving through the Google Suggest search results that pop down from the query bar actually changes the results page: you don't need to hit return to generate those results. Four characters into "fauvism" (whatever that is), it generates results. This isn't "search as you type," Mayer says, it's "search before you type," since Google Suggest is being used to predict what you are most likely to type.

9:56 a.m.: Hitting "tab" autocompletes whatever query pops up in the Google Suggest bar, and then allows you to refine your query accordingly. This is interesting stuff, but I guarantee it's going to freak some people out.

James Martin/CNET

9:58 a.m.: Google Instant is rolling out later today. It's available on Chrome, Firefox, Safari, and IE8, she says, in that order. Google Instant will be part of the core search experience in the U.S., and it will roll out internationally over the next week but only to certain countries, such as France, Germany, and the U.K.

9:59 a.m.: Google Instant should save 2-5 seconds per query, Mayer said. That adds up over time, she said, although it doesn't seem like much. Some of the other engineers who built the product are coming on stage, Othar Hansson and Johanna Wright.

10:00 a.m.: Wright launches into further discussion. Google has been using this internally "for months," she said. She's the director of product management for search, and Hansson is the product lead for this product. There's three main features that Google's about to demonstrate in more detail.

10:01 a.m.: The first one is instant results, the second is the set of predictions, and the third is "scroll to search." Instant results now show up immediately upon typing, no need to hit enter. "W" generates a weather forecast for your current location, for example.

10:03 a.m.: The second part, predictions, is up next. Wright is talking about the book, The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo. Books and lyrics are often-used Google Suggest queries, Hansson says, because people tend to forget titles and lyrics. When you start typing a search, the actual characters you have typed are in black, while Google's top suggestion follows those characters in gray.

Google Instant search for Girl With the Dragon Tattoo.
Google engineers Othar Hansson and Johanna Wright demo a Google Instant search for Girl With the Dragon Tattoo. James Martin/CNET

James Martin/CNET

10:03 a.m. (from Josh Lowensohn): I want to see him do that search with Safesearch off...

10:04 a.m.: Scroll to search is the last part. A query for Yosemite brings up a bunch of different suggestions, such as Yosemite hotels, Yosemite hiking, etc. You can generate the search results by moving down through those suggestions to automatically change the search results page.

10:05 a.m. (from Josh Lowensohn): Q: If an offensive or lewd word is a fraction of my query, will Google push these results in front of me as I type?

A: As always, we provide options to filter the content you see in search. You can choose to set SafeSearch to filter out explicit content, and parents can lock SafeSearch to the strict setting. In addition, autocomplete excludes certain terms related to pornography, violence, and hate speech.

10:06 a.m.: The three factors turn Google "into a system that gives you feedback as you move along," Wright said. They search for "The Addams Family," which of course generates results for the television show. But they wanted information about the musical that's coming out, so they add "tickets" and that pushes the Broadway results live.

10:07 a.m.: So what happens when you press the search button? Hansson does a search for "New York" by typing "ny". If you press the button, it generates results as it always has. So if you still want to hit the return button, feel free.

10:09 a.m.: Hansson launches into a story about his new bike, and how he was able to climb hills much faster. Google Instant is like that, he says. It's the same thing, only faster. Wright moves into an awkward joke about how that means Google search is like riding a bicycle. Hansson laughs, everybody else grimaces.

10:10 a.m.: Another demo: half-remembered queries. For example, if you've searched for a breed of dog called "King Charles Cavaliers," typing "king charles" will generate results for the dog, not any former Kings of England.

James Martin/CNET

10:12 a.m.: Sneak preview of a fall launch: They are working to get this experience on mobile phones, presumably Android phones? It's not clear. But this is a feature that might be even more useful on mobile phones, where typing is slower and more complicated, Hansson says. They are demonstrating it on a new Droid but it was just a browser-based feature, so this may work for everyone, or at least those with Webkit browsers.

Google Instant on Droid
Google Instant on Droid James Martin/CNET

10:13 a.m.: We're actually being shown videos of members of the general public who tested this feature, presumably to dampen criticism that Google tests too many things within its tech-obsessed employee base, rather than the general public. Believe it or not, everybody likes it.

10:15 a.m.: Ben Gomes is coming up to talk about all the engineering work that went into the product. Gomes said it was a bit of a challenge, because people thought it was going to be expensive to develop and too annoying to users. But once executives saw a demo, they said that Google had to do this, Gomes said.

10:15 a.m. (from reader Ryan): How fast could this thing be on phones though?

10:15 a.m. (from Josh Lowensohn): @Ryan, possibly quite fast if Google goes with something like Fastflip http://fastflip.googlelabs.com/

10:16 a.m.: Google needed to make this work on any computer, make it easy to understand, and make sure it didn't melt down its infrastructure. The UI design came out of an earlier project along these lines called Incremental Google Search that didn't quite pan out. But they learned to take partial queries and translate them to real searches, which wasn't really possible until Auto Complete was fully baked. The key idea was the gray text for the prediction.

Othar Hansson and Ben Gomes
Othar Hansson (left) and Ben Gomes (right) James Martin/CNET

10:17 a.m.: Early prototypes were distracting, in that the auto-generated results were too fast or too chaotic. Internal refinements helped it get better, and Google started testing it with the public, showing it eventually to "millions" of users.

10:18 a.m.: In Google's labs, it invited people in to use the feature and tracked their eye movements to see how they navigated around the page, a pretty common experience in Web page design. People focus on the search box when they type, or maybe the autocomplete, which means they aren't looking at the results pages as they whiz by with each keystroke, Hansson says.

User testing on Google Instant
James Martin/CNET

10:19 a.m.: The image above is a video of a user with the eye-tracking equipment. The video showed a searcher hovering over the search box while typing.

10:22 a.m.: So how did Google make it work for everyone? They are turning search into an AJAX application, rather than a static HTML page, "which is not a simple problem," Gomes says. The instant results are generated mainly through the predictions, which Google sends back to the indexing servers to pull results and display them on the page. The servers figured out which searches were relevant to your query based on those predictions, and serves them up accordingly.

10:25 a.m.: And the main concern for Google was that its famed IT infrastructure could handle such a process. Google is already serving over one billion queries a day, but it was now talking about something like 20 billion searches a day. The initial prototype was pretty resource intensive, but Google engineers picked away at it until they were able to make it more manageable, such as prioritizing important searches based on one letter typed. Also, the caching system was improved.

10:26 a.m.: Gomes thanks the Google team that worked on this, inviting engineers to stand up and be recognized. Google's Israeli team was the brains behind the autocomplete features, he says.

10:27 a.m.: The scale of the search problem is why engineers get excited about working at Google, Gomes says. He also says that getting people information quickly helps people make better decisions and improves the quality of their life.

10:28 a.m.: Gomes calls this one of the biggest changes in Google search as far as usability. "Not only does it make search faster, but it makes search fun, fluid, and interactive."

10:30 a.m.: Google Instant was a massive change to the search system, but Gomes thinks it will become one of those things where you wonder why it wasn't like that all along. Mayer comes back on stage to talk up "search at the speed of thought." Google thinks search in the future will be more interactive, comprehensive, and understanding of users and their intent as well as the entire Web.

10:32 a.m.: Google Instant has all those three pieces wrapped into one feature, she says. She gets around to the counters I wondered about earlier, and Google is saying they are a representation of "hours saved" by this feature. At the moment, Google has supposedly saved more than 36,000 hours of its users' time.

10:33 a.m.: Mayer said Google engineers were inspired by Bob Dylan's radical (at the time) decision to give up the acoustic guitar for the electric guitar. They've got a promo video set to "Subterranean Homesick Blues," showing how search results move as fast as Dylan tossing those flashcards away in that iconic video. That will do it for the formal presentation. We're moving into Q&A.

Othar Hansson, Marissa Mayer, Ben Gomes, Johanna Wright, Sergey Brin, and Udi Manber
From left to right: Othar Hansson, Marissa Mayer, Ben Gomes, Johanna Wright, Sergey Brin, and Udi Manber James Martin/CNET

10:34 a.m.: Somehow, Robert Scoble manages to get the first question in, about whether or not the feature will be in the browser. Mayer says that will take a few months.

10:35 a.m.: Ads are the next question, which is the huge one related to this product development. Nothing has changed with ranking ads, Wright says. Google Instant changes search, however, and so Google now considers a three-second pause as an ad impression. Clicks on ads are still clicks, of course.

10:37 a.m.: What about search history and Web history? Mayer says this operates as you'd expect. With Web history, enabled queries will be shown as well as your three-second pauses, so you'll know which results you found more interesting.

10:39 a.m.: Is there a blacklist of words? An AdAge reporter with the unfortunate last name of "Slutsky" notices that her name isn't coming up in this system. Wright says that Google has been worried about "child safety," and therefore Google filters out certain results related to pornography that won't show up in the autocomplete, although of course they will show up if you hit the enter button.

10:41 a.m.: Another question comes up on the amount of personal info needed to make this work. Mayer says that nothing has changed in the amount of personal information required, in that the weather query generated by a "w" is based off the IP address for that area. Wright answers a second question about data-center investment, and says this won't really change the pace of investment into Google's infrastructure, especially since they were able to refine the resource requirements for the feature.

10:42 a.m.: Sergey Brin is up on stage, and he gets asked a question from the Internet about the human-machine interface. Brin jokes about "making Google the third half of your brain," and moves into a more serious discussion about how tech companies are bringing a "new dawn" to this era of computing, after a stagnant period in the '90s. Over the past several years, devices and browsers have gotten more capable and people are more open-minded about experimenting more with inserting computers into more and more of their lives.

10:44 a.m.: So what about SEO? Gomes says that ranking isn't going to change, so search results themselves aren't going to be very different, and therefore those trying to rank higher in search aren't really going to see any difference. Search itself, however, is changing, and how that changes the SEO game over time may take a while to play out, he says.

10:45 a.m.: Another question comes up about China, and whether or not this will eventually go global. Mayer says Google wants to roll this out in as many geographies as possible, and says Google believes it should be able to offer this feature on the Hong Kong version of its Chinese-language site.

10:46 a.m.: One questioner wonders if people really want faster search. The Google people, unsurprisingly, have no doubt that they do. This will spark more interaction with the search box, Hansson says, and Mayer compares this kind of thing to the way power steering and power brakes changed driving: you forgot what things were like before it.

10:47 a.m.: The guy who wrote Inside Larry and Sergey's brain asks Sergey about privacy. (Shouldn't he know the answer already?) Sergey says privacy is something Google thinks about all the time: but the most sensitive information is in your e-mail. Google Instant isn't anything different from search yesterday in the privacy aspect, he says.

10:48 a.m.: Another question comes about how search is changing with this. Gomes says internal tests generated more queries, since searchers could see other things they may be interested in right away. It's sort of similar to how people played around with Google Maps: they'll explore a topic more than before.

10:50 a.m.: Did anybody in testing not want this, and was it dependent on Caffeine? Mayer says there were some users who decided to turn off Google Instant, and says there will be a box next to the search bar that allows you to turn this feature off. But most people kept it on, she said. As far as Caffeine goes, they weren't directly tied but the newer indexing methodology changed the way Google Instant had to implementing its caching feature.

10:50 a.m.: How will Google Instant affect paid search as is this the end of SEO? Wright reiterates that ranking isn't going to change, and that while user behavior might change, SEOs are pretty good about keeping up with changes.

10:52 a.m.: Brin is asked if he ever expected Google Instant to happen. He thanks Moore's Law for improving the compute power that allows Google to implement something like this, advances in back-end processing. Brin said he had conceived of such an idea, but it was hard to know back in the day how fast computing would advance to allow Google to do this.

10:54 a.m.: The panelists are asked about how they can make more people contribute more content to the Web. Brin says that that's always been a priority at Google, in that it needs people generating more and more content to expand the size of the Web, and therefore the number of searches that people will perform. They've done things like Blogger and AdSense, but they recognize they can't do it all alone and help fund the expansion of content through advertising revenue.

Brin hints that improvements are coming to the user reviews that people can leave on Google pages.

10:55 a.m.: Can this be even faster? Gomes says "today we're going to enjoy this," but that Google will keep working on ways to make the experience faster.

10:57 a.m.: What about the branded results generated by a single letter? For example, Target comes up with you type "t." Also, will this make the second page of search results irrelevant? Gomes says that the user intent isn't changing, in that you'll still keep typing for the things you want. And Wright says that it's a better experience for the user if you don't have to click over to the second page of results. "We are totally focused on our users," Wright says.

10:59 a.m.: An audience member wants to know when these features are coming to mobiles and Japan, where character-based languages make something like this more important. Mayer says to expect these features on mobile and in Japan "sometime in the coming months."

10:59 a.m. (from Josh Lowensohn): I'm finding one of the really interesting things about this is how much more exposure one letter search results get, e.g.:

B-Bay Area Rapid Transit

11:00 a.m.: Another questioner wants to know if this is part of a bigger plan. Mayer says that Google is constantly changing the presentation layer of Google results because the Web is changing, and the needs of users are changing.

11:02 a.m.: Another questioner wants to know about Josh's point above, in that the top result is so much more prominent in this system, and the top results aren't always right. Hansson says that in testing, people would keep typing to pull results higher up on the page if they didn't like the things they saw in the first few results. The idea being, if you're looking for something and it doesn't show up right away, if you keep typing and refining that query it will eventually get there.

11:04 a.m.: That's going to do it from Google's event. Thanks for hanging out with us, and stay tuned for videos, a hands-on review, and more coverage of that this means to Google and the search industry.

Invitation to the Google search event held on Wednesday, September 8.

Editors' note: The original, pre-event version of this story was posted Tuesday at 12:49 p.m.