When Google launched Instant back in September, users were confronted by one of the most radical makeovers of online search in years: a results-as-you-type search engine, which flashes answers to predicted queries with each key stroke—without having to hit return. Many worried of the impact such an overhaul would have on SEO and ad impressions, while others wondered whether the system had an inherent brand bias. (To which Google responded again and again.)
Over at Co.Design, our own Cliff Kuang delved into the new feature's design flaws. (To which Google responded.) Wikipedia even has an entire category dedicated to negative reception (sourced solely by a "Google Instant sucks" search on Google), and USA Today went so far as to suggest at the time that Instant might be another flop in the vein of Google Wave.
Since then, have Google users shunned Instant as a disruptive technology, or welcomed it as the new template for the way we search the web?
The answer to that question, six months later, is emphatically in Google's favor. According to Ben Gomes, the lead engineer on Google Instant, the engine's newest feature has had a remarkably small attrition rate: Roughly 98% of users are using Instant, leaving around just 2% of users who have opted out.
"We've seen good results with Instant, even after launch," Gomes tells Fast Company. "We found [we have] have a very low opt-out rate."
Though users have the option to return to traditional type-and-click searching—"We kept an opt-out, and in fact made it really prominent," says Gomes—it appears users were impressed by Instant's speed. Since launch, Google users are typing 5% fewer characters, and reaching results 10% faster than they were with traditional search. On average, says Gomes, users are seeing results about 4 to 5 seconds quicker than they were before the company introduced Instant.
Still, Instant's low opt-out rates should not be the only measure of its success. If Instant were an opt-in feature, rather than the default, would 98% of Googlers voluntarily choose to turn it on? No, just as 2% of users are likely not the only ones interested in turning it off, regardless of how prominent the opt-out option is.
And Google of course knows that popularity doesn't correspond always to a product's excellence. Gomes says the Instant team is still fiddling with the interface, and trying to polish timing parameters. Additionally, the search giant is looking to integrate Instant with the Google Toolbar and Chrome browser. "We have room to improve," says Gomes.
It's not uncommon for companies to face significant backlash when redesigning a product, especially with such a high-traffic service as Google. Facebook revamps have been known to ruffle a few (million) feathers, for example, and after Digg's infamously botched relaunch, the site lost roughly a quarter of its visitors.
But this certainly isn't Google's first rodeo, even in major search engine overhauls. In 2008, when Google unveiled Suggest, the query predictor tool that helps users complete searches before they're typed, the company was sure to include an opt-out option, just in case.
That option didn't last long.
"We got rid of it because almost nobody opts out," says Gomes, who calls Suggest the "unsung hero" of Instant that we now "take for granted."
With 98% of users hooked up to Instant, is it time for Google to get rid of its opt-out option too?