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6/15/2011
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How Google Instant Pages Improves Search

Say goodbye to I'm Feeling Lucky and say hello to I'm Feeling Confident: Google's new search trick takes educated guessing to another level. Just beware a few potential problems.

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Getting the right answer at Google used to be a matter of luck. The company enshrined that assessment of its accuracy on its search page with a button labeled "I'm Feeling Lucky," which takes searchers to the top entry in what for most searches is probably a long list of search results of varying relevance.

Fewer than 1% of Google users feel confident enough in Google's ability to answer queries to try their luck, or so said Google's Marissa Mayer in 2007.

But as Google amasses ever more usage data and refines its search technology, the company's engineers are becoming more confident that Google's code can answer queries satisfactorily or even exactly. With the launch of Google Instant Pages on Wednesday at a media event in San Francisco, the company is betting that it can predict what you're looking for.

Google used to joke about being psychic--one of its April Fool's Day gags back in the year 2000 claimed as much. But last year, when Google launched Google Instant, by which search results are refreshed and refined with every character typed, Google executives and engineers used the term half-seriously, to describe just how quickly Google could divine user intent from incomplete keywords.

The arrival of Google Instant last September was heralded as the death of "I'm Feeling Lucky." With Google Instant, the "I'm Feeling Lucky" button disappears as soon as a user starts typing into the Classic Home search page, in order to start presenting instant search results. (If you search from an iGoogle home page, the button remains an option in the drop-down search suggestion menu.)

But it might be more apt to characterize Google Instant as the birth of "I'm Feeling Confident," which isn't actually the title of a Google search button but might as well be. Google has gotten good at guessing and it's getting better daily.

You can see this in its product launches, like search auto-completion in 2004 and the May 2010 launch of the Google Prediction API, which allows developers to access Google's machine-learning algorithms to make sense of trends. Google Flu Trends, by which the company can anticipate flu outbreaks, represents another example of emerging psychic powers.

Google Instant Pages takes educating guessing even further: For those using Google Chrome, it prerenders the Web pages linked to in search results lists that the searcher is deemed most likely to select. If Google guesses correctly, it can save the user several seconds of page load time--two to five seconds on average, Google estimates--by presenting the page instantaneously.

Done well, the result is a better user experience. But prerendering Web pages--something any website can do for users of Chrome 13, soon to be in beta--is not without potential problems.

Prerendering, explains Google product manager Alex Komoroske in a blog post, "is challenging to do correctly and will only be useful to a handful of sites that have a high degree of certainty of where their users will click next. Triggering prerendering for the wrong site could lead to the link the user did click on loading more slowly."

Prerendering can also waste bandwidth if the guess is incorrect.

Because prerendering can affect Web analytics data at websites--site owners and advertisers want to know when pages are actually viewed rather than preloaded--Google is advising Web developers to look into the page visibility API, a draft specification that provides developers with a way to determine the visibility of a given Web page.

Google suggests that unless you have a high degree of confidence that users will click on a given link, prerendering may not be the best option. For those without Google's store of user data to rely on for guidance, prerendering might best be employed in conjunction with a "Next" link that connects a series of associated pages. It doesn't take a mindreader to anticipate serial progression through linked Web pages.

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