Oct 032010

In late 2007, Google engineers set out to test a hunch.

For about a million oblivious users, the company throttled back the delivery of search results by 100 to 400 milliseconds for several weeks. Less than half a second is barely perceptible, but the results were unmistakable.

Use of the search engine dropped by 0.2 to 0.6 percent on average during the experiment, worsening as it went on.

If 0.6 percent sounds trivial, consider this: Had search advertising dropped off commensurately, and there’s every reason to believe it would have, the delay would have cost Google about $900 million in revenue last year.

The lesson: Speed matters. A lot.

That’s why the Mountain View company is dedicating huge resources to an audacious goal: the instantaneous Internet, an experience every bit as immediate as traditional media.

“Browsing should actually feel like flipping the pages of a magazine,” said Bill Coughran, senior vice president of engineering at Google. “The Web, in general, is very far away from that.”

Google believes that the more it can turbocharge its products, and the Internet itself, the more people will search, surf, watch videos, download music and engage in other activities that will become possible as the Web breaks new speed barriers. (Massive multiplayer holographic video games anyone?)

Google is by no means the only company promoting a faster Web, but as the dominant Internet business, it’s using its industry clout and bank account to goad webmasters, Internet service providers and even users to tighten the nuts and bolts of today’s Internet, and to think big about tomorrow’s.

“Other companies maybe pay lip service to this, but they don’t take it to the lengths that Google takes it,” said Ray Valdes, an analyst with Gartner. “Their view is that if the Web wins, Google wins.”

There are considerable challenges, however, to accelerating overall online speeds in meaningful ways. In fact, by some measures, the United States isn’t even making much progress.

The capacity of average Internet connections has increased by more than 74 times since 1996 in the United States, as more and more people upgraded from dial-up to DSL or cable, according to research by Aptimize, which creates software to improve website speed.

But consider a site like White house.gov. During that same time period, as the once simple site was loaded down with pictures and graphics, its size swelled by 54 times.

For the end user, the experience might be more enjoyable and informative, but it isn’t appreciably faster.

Once broadband customers outstripped dial-up users, “Website developers suddenly said, ‘We’re free. We don’t have to worry about developing pages that have to load fast,’ ” said Ed Robinson, chief executive of Aptimize.

It doesn’t help that the Internet highways are particularly shoddy in the United States. In the first quarter, the average connection speed was 4.7 megabits per second, ranking 16th globally. South Korea led the list with rates more than twice that.

‘Circle of life’

When Ben Gomes, a distinguished engineer at Google, joined the company in 1999, certain queries nearly stumped the search engine. The term “circle of life,” for instance, took more than 10 seconds to generate results.

Today, the same search takes around 0.15 second.

Such improvements are the result of enormous hardware investments and thousands of improvements to the search tool. Google made more than 550 tweaks last year alone, most designed to improve the understanding of user intent.

The more the search engine can extract meaning from human language, as opposed to simply matching keywords, the more on target its results become. And that’s a huge factor in speed: If a user has to search twice, or click to a second page of results, it can easily double the process.

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