SAN FRANCISCO (AdAge.com) -- Google rolled out the most significant change to its search page since the advent of search ads on Wednesday with what it calls "Google Instant." Rather than requiring searchers to hit "enter," results pop up -- along with corresponding search ads -- as you type a Google attempts to predict queries from the very first character.
The results evolve as you type and change in real-time, allowing users to adjust their string of queries as they type. "It's like power-steering in a car; once you get used to it, you won't be able to search without it," said Google Search VP Marissa Mayer, adding that it's a fundamental shift in search technology and "a step into the future of search."
The tagline for Google Instant is "Results as you type. Fewer Clicks" -- and the company predicts the product will save users more than 350 million hours a year, or two to five seconds per search, on average. So with all that time-saving, will users be spending less time in search, meaning less time with search ads, now a $23 billion business for Google?
"Overall, this will be a much better experience for our users, so they will actually be searching more," Ms. Mayer said. "Google Instant will grow the size and scope of search in general."
But there will be some concrete changes for Google's search advertisers. Since the real-time results can change on a millisecond basis, Google had to come up with a new way to define an ad impression. They decided that a cognitive pause was three seconds long -- meaning that if a user paused on a results page for three seconds or more, he or she was comprehending the contents of the page long enough for it to count as an impression. Google, of course, only gets paid when there is a click, but it will change the calculation for advertisers who carefully tailor their ads to reach a hoped-for click-through rate.
"It could be a 5% increase or a 5% decrease in average impressions, but it should not change the amount of money advertisers make," said AdWords head Jon Diorio after a splashy press event at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. "If anything, we believe users will be more engaged and drive more value for the advertiser. It shouldn't change the total number of clicks."
Analysts and marketers have just begun sorting through what it all means for brands that spend millions a month on search advertising. At first blush, the real-time results appear to give more prominence to the web's biggest brands. Just typing the letter "a" into the search box and doing nothing else auto-completes the first word as Amazon, or, AOL, depending on browser history and geography. As a result, almost the entire page is a list of Amazon links. The same goes for the letter "t" and Target and the letter "f" with Facebook.
While results appear to differ a bit based on a variety of factors, the advantage to those attached to a letter are a lot more search impressions.
"You can't ignore the fact that the first letter is a high exposure spot," said Rob Garner, senior strategy director at iCrossing, a unit of Hearst. "If I'm typing in 'a,' technically Google doesn't know if I'm going to Apple or Amazon, and even if it doesn't last three seconds on the page, there's going to be a flash of an ad or a result there. I cant help but think that's going to make a tremendous difference for the brands that come out at the top like Bank of America, Best Buy, Wal-Mart, etc."
But Google execs argued that the impact of those first-letter impressions will be small. Othar Hansson, senior staff software engineer for Google Instant, said the ad metrics should remain almost exactly the same because of the users' intent. "Our overall metrics show the users still get results they are looking for," he said. "Some people might be distracted by the results, but normally, they have an actual intent, and they keep searching for that. We haven't directly analyzed if people are distracted by the top or intermediate results, but if they're looking for aardvarks and Amazon comes up, if they go shopping at Amazon, I think its a very small effect."
Mr. Hansson and other engineers argued the reason those big brands are the top results is because those are the results most often looked for when users type that letter into the search box, so Google continues to give the most relevant results. When pressed further, Mr. Hansson said, "Obviously Kohl's is interested that Kmart is first -- I think people have brand preference, but these things do change over time."
Google execs were quick to note that natural search results, and techniques companies use to land higher in Google search results, won't change. But Johanna Wright, director of product management for Google Instant, said one difference is that they will direct users to "page two" results faster. "As you continue typing and narrowing your search, the instantly changing and refreshing results below the search box will be giving you more relevant results," she said. "So if you previously looked on the second page, now those same results come to the top of the pile for you."
Proving exactly how futuristic the product is, Ms. Mayer showed a slide of Google's 2000 April Fool's joke, an upgrade that was supposed to predict what you were searching for without you having to type. At this point, it's just one keystroke away.