The Side-Effects of Google Instant


If you haven't tried Google Instant yet, you're either not much of a Net surfer or you live outside the U.S. (where it seems Instant is slow to roll out). It's impressive, intuitive, and a little annoying, almost as if Google is trying to guess what's going on inside your head. Google's CEO Eric Schmidt hinted, back at the launch of real time Twitter integration, that Google's ultimate goal was to achieve search at the speed of the mind—and Instant is pretty much as close as they'll get for the moment.

Still, Google has one disadvantage when it comes to matching your brain. It relies on millions of slices of silicon to do its basic search tasks. And Google Instant just makes its server burden much worse.

The idea is that you'll save many thousands of seconds every year—a couple each time you access Google to look for something. Google serves up countless millions of search matches every second. Multiply that by a few seconds per user, and Google is potentially saving the world billions of dollars worth of work-hours.

But this effort inevitably costs Google. It costs a lot. Its entire search system has to work more swiftly, and serve up dynamically-changing lists of search results as you type into its query box—not only does it have to dig them out of its archive, but it also has to format them and push them to your browser in a time fast enough to be relevant (before you type the next letter is a good measure of this speed.) During the Instant presentation Ben Gomes explained that the server burden has risen by somewhere between 10 and 20 times.

That's likely to increase Google's carbon footprint, not to mention its electricity bill. All that server power has to come from somewhere, even while Google uses tricks (like biasing its guesses towards words that're more likely than others—guessing "snow" is more likely to follow when you type "s" than "syzygy").

As for all those spare seconds that've just been given to you, you may well end up spending them on Google anyway. Why? Two reasons. Firstly, as Google Instant "guesses" search results that match your incomplete query, you're likely to notice sites popping up that you wouldn't have seen before (even if they're only tangentially linked to your intended phrase).Human curiosity being what it is, you may well click on one of them.

Secondly, now that Google delivers things so very swiftly—often beating you to the punch—you do get a genuine feeling of satisfaction from using it. And that may be a gentle prompt for you to try out a few clicks on Google that you may never have tried beforehand—such as a quick image search.

If Instant does cause that kind of halo effect, Google's server burden may be yet higher than the company suspects. And that's not even accounting for any new Internet memes based around the real-time search results. Will Instant be the straw that broke the back of Google's server farms?

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  • Jose Camaron

    Google Instant is abysmally slow.  I always turn it off, and I'm in the U.S.  Epic fail.

  • david marks

    It's presumptuous to assume that instant search actually uses any more resources than the traditional search product. It might use less.

    Pushing data to the client (browser) can be an efficient way to offload processing from the server farm, and it would not surprise me if the new architecture *reduces* the load on google's servers and network. I seriously doubt Google would implement instant on top of the old architecture and release it at scale -- this is appears to be running just fine on google's existing infrastructure for the bulk of their traffic.

  • Ras Gould

    Must be a slow tech news day...are you really saying Google should not be doing instant search because it might require more electricity? I am not sure the kind of economics you are penciling out but this seems to be a really forced and stretched out topic that barely covers the column inches you might be required to write. You know what might save electricity? No internet. How about we eliminate cell phones because every night when we charge our phones that requires electricity. Fast Company should be happy to know that I stumbled upon your article when I was searching for news story regarding Google's instant search.