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What’s so great about Google Instant? Hint: Not the Instant

September 19, 2010

Ever since Google’s big announcement about ten days ago about saving a couple billion seconds with their new Instant interface. Presumably they’re using a lot of AJAX to serve up search results as you type in your query. (Formerly they would only suggest other queries, now the results actually update in real-time.) Since the announcement, there have been a bunch of articles both touting kids (including a few of my Stanford classmates) who wrote “Instant” interfaces for other services (most notably YouTube) and lamenting the fact that Bing didn’t introduce this feature before Google did. This is actually a pretty interesting project for learning some AJAX – write a generic Instant interface that works for any site with a searchbox – digg, twitter, etc. I might do it if I have a spare day this quarter.

What they are ignoring here is that the challenge isn’t in the interface. It’s all about the servers. It’s no problem for a 15-year-old or a Stanford kid to build a new interface for YouTube or Bing or whatever. The problem is actually deploying it on the official site and having a couple hundred million users. Imagine that Google serves on the order of 500 million searches a day (quantcast says that about 80 million people visit each day). With the Instant interface, each letter or two becomes its own search. Using everyone’s favorite ‘back of the envelope’ math, turning on Instant takes Google from 500 million to as many as 5 billion queries a day almost immediately (they did stagger the roll-out a bit).

Here’s my point: while it’s great that people are building Instant interfaces for things, for a site like Bing to actually turn Instant on for their main site would require a massive investment in server hardware more than anything. If Google Instant catches on, they may have to do just that, but this isn’t the kind of project that you can just throw an intern at (as much as I’d like it to be otherwise – yes, I am interested). The magic of Google Instant is all about the servers, not the AJAX on the front-end.

EDIT: One very good article (don’t remember which) points out that the server load associated with a 10x increase in search traffic is still¬†minuscule when compared to the cost of serving several hundred million videos on YouTube each day. At the end of the day, it’s all about the ads. CPI has to come down, right? Or not? How can Google count an impression if you only look at the ad between when you type ‘W’ and when you type the ‘i’ in Wikipedia?

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