Issue of the week: Now Google reads your mind

Google's new feature, Google Instant, tries to determine what users are searching for before they are finished typing.

If you have a complaint about Google, chances are it’s not that its Web searches are too slow, said James Temple in the San Francisco Chronicle. But that hasn’t stopped Google from introducing Google Instant, which aims “to shave seconds off most online searches by trying to predict what users are looking for before they’re done typing.” Like its non-instant forebear, Google Instant (available at displays a page of search results in response to queries. What’s new is that those results change as each additional letter is typed. Enter “w” in the search box, for example, and you might get a page leading off with the local weather. “Add an ‘a’ and the top link switches to” Google claims that the feature, which draws upon Google’s vast archive of previous searches to anticipate what users want, will collectively save users 350 million hours over the next 12 months. That claim is impossible to verify, but it’s already clear that Google Instant is a game-changer for online searchers and the advertisers who want to reach them.

“Tuts of irritation are already audible,” said Rhodri Marsden in the London Independent. Users dislike the way Google Instant shuts itself off at the first hint of a naughty search term (try looking for Russian economist Eugen Slutsky). But online advertisers might have far more to complain about. They have spent big money to master “search engine optimization”—the strategic placement of keywords and other tricks that propel a website to the top of Google’s results page. Until Google Instant, practitioners of search-engine optimization took their cues from the terms users actually typed. Now they’ll have to learn to take cues from the terms Google expects users to type. You can “almost hear the rule books being torn up.” Still, the new feature “creates opportunities for tech-savvy firms,” said Jefferson Graham in USA Today. But they’ll have to embrace an unprecedented level of detail to anticipate search results thrown up by syllables or even individual letters.

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