Google Instant

September 8, 2010: 2:11 PM ET

The search leader unveils what it hopes is a fundamental change to how we search online: Search at the speed of thought.

If you already thought Google could read your mind, the search Giant made it official Wednesday with the launch of Google Instant. "It's not quite psychic but it is very clever," said Othar Hansson, one of the Google engineers that developed the new search mode, to a crowd of press, analysts and Googlers at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art Wednesday morning.

Part of what Google Instant does is predict the search terms you are going to type. A single letter "w" might auto-complete to "weather." Weather results, based on your location, then instantly show up on the search page  - no hitting return or clicking on the search button. "We can predict what you are likely to type and bring you those results in real-time," said Google's head of search Marrissa Mayer. "It is a much faster search, an easier search, we can provide results in real-time before you have had a chance to type your query."

As the name "Instant" suggests, Google is all about making its core search product faster. "Never underestimate the importance of fast," Google CEO Eric Schmidt reminded people at a recent appearance in Berlin. According to Google the typical person takes more than nine seconds to enter a search term. It takes only 300 milliseconds for Google's algorithms to digest the query and its servers to return results. In other words, people type very slowly and our sluggish performance accounts for the vast majority of time it takes to do a search.

Turns out, however, we read fast.

Google's team found that typing typically occurs at a rate 300 milliseconds between keystrokes. It takes only 30 milliseconds (a tenth of the time) to glance at another part of the page.  So we read much faster than we type. With instant results flowing down the screen as you begin to type, Google anticipates people will be able to quickly scan for the result they want, saving two to five seconds per search. If all of Google's 1 billion users per week use Google Instant, Google estimates this will save more than 3.5 billion seconds a day, or 11 hours saved every second.

The new search mode will roll out starting to today in the United States on all the major browsers. In the coming week, it will come to the United Kingdom, France, Italy, Germany, Spain and Russia. Mobile is coming in the next few months.

Google co-founder Sergey Brin at the launch of Google Instant

With all the results flowing so quickly, an obvious question is whether it changes the number and value of clicks. Google's Mayer said the Instant feature is not likely to change things for advertisers. The way Google serves and ranks ads will not change. "Overall clicks to a site are likely to remain constant," Mayer said. What might change, and to Google's benefit, is the number of searches people do. "If it is faster and easier, we are likely to see people do more searches and take on harder problems," Hansson said.

What Google hopes is the Instant approach becomes akin to power steering in cars, something we can't do without. Whether the public agrees, or finds it simply creepy, will become apparent very quickly. During a Q&A session following the main presentation Google co-founder Sergey Brin took a seat on stage. Brin made it clear that approaches like Google Instant, that bring technology closer to our everyday tasks and make our interactions with all kinds of computing devices more intimate, are part of a trend that will continue and gather steam.

"I do think it's a little but of a new dawn in computing," said Brin, sporting the propeller head's shoe of a choice, rubbery gloves for your feet. "This is a piece of a really changing landscape in computing, the things that you are going to see come out in the next decade from Google and other companies are really going to change the way you interact with computing devices."

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Michael Copeland
Michael Copeland

Michael V. Copeland joined FORTUNE as a senior writer in September 2007. Copeland has covered everything from electric cars to e-readers. He is a creator of Tech Mate, an irreverent video series in which he debates (and skewers) digital issues of the day. Before joining FORTUNE, Copeland was a senior writer at Business 2.0. Copeland graduated from the University of Pennsylvania.

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