Sep 082010
 

(09-08) 14:18 PDT San Francisco
Google Inc. unveiled a major upgrade to its search engine on Wednesday, showing off a new feature that promises to shave seconds off most online searches by attempting to predict what users are looking for before they’re done typing.

The Mountain View search giant demonstrated Google Instant during a morning press conference at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, proclaiming that those seconds will add up to 350 million hours in time savings for its users over the next year.

“We’re predicting what query you’re likely to do,” said Marissa Mayer, vice president of search products and user experience. “It means much faster search … and really providing results in real time.”

The product went live for U.S. users of the Chrome, Firefox, Safari and Internet Explore 8 browsers on Wednesday. For these consumers, a single keystroke now begins pulling up possible search results.

Type “w” in Google’s familiar search box and results pop up for local weather at the top of the page. Add an “a” and the top link switches to Walmart.com. Tack on an “n” and, at least in San Francisco, it assumes you’re looking for the Wanderlust yoga retreat in Squaw Valley.

Google is tapping into its massive database of online user behavior to predict the most common searches based on the letters, numbers or symbols entered. This allows the company to turbocharge the search process by attacking the critical choke point: The user.

On average, Web surfers spend nine seconds on a search query and another 15 seconds selecting a result, the company said. By contrast, it takes Google and the network operators together just over a second to funnel the query, and process and deliver results.

By anticipating what they’re looking for, and allowing them to instantly click on or arrow down to the most relevant result, Google expects to save between 2 to 5 seconds per user per query.

“It really highlights the importance of search for Google,” said David Hallerman, senior analyst for New York research firm eMarketer Inc. “It’s where most of their revenue still comes from, so they’re developing more capabilities to keep Google on top in terms of audience share and search share.”

Google will begin rolling out the new feature internationally in the days to come, beginning with France, Germany, Italy, Russia, Spain and the U.K. It hopes to introduce a version for mobile devices this fall.

For now, the search engine will predict results based on aggregated user data, though down the road the process may become more personalized according to specific user behavior, Mayer said.

She declined to discuss specific revenue implications, but said that being a faster and more sophisticated search engine has historically allowed Google to grow both its market share and the total pie of online searches.

Asked if there’s a potential to lose ad clicks, the company’s bread and butter, by ushering users off its search page more quickly, she responded that there has been no indication of that in user tests so far.

This was a concern, however, for Benchmark Co. analyst Clayton Moran.

“I got the feeling it sort of encourages users to scroll down and potentially pay less attention to the right hand side ads,” he said. “It’s maybe something to watch.”

On the other hand, he said Google Instant offers a better user experience that is likely to drive more volume, so it’s difficult to predict the overall financial impact.

Another worry, raised several times during the question and answer session, is what impact the change will have on search engine optimisation, or the methods that Web publishers employ to ensure high rankings on Google’s search page.

Ben Gomes, distinguished engineer at Google, said the company hasn’t changed anything about how it orders search results, but allowed that the new feature could shift consumer behavior over time in ways that might be difficult to predict.

Users “will start being presented with results immediately, so it’s more and more important that your website be at the top,” said Patrick Kerley, who oversees search engine optimisation and other digital strategy efforts at Levick Strategic Communications in Washington, D.C. “There will be less time for a consumer to make a choice.”

E-mail James Temple at jtemple@sfchronicle.com.

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