This week in search 12/18/09

This is part of a regular series of posts on search experience updates that runs on Fridays. Look for the label This week in search and subscribe to the series. - Ed.

For Google, the quality of search has always been about getting you the exact, most relevant answer you were looking for in the shortest amount of time -- what we call "time-to-result." These notions of relevance and speed have been baked into our product development and are always a top priority for us. Every day we work through design, observations, and analytics to make sure that the Google you use today is better than the Google you used yesterday. In fact, at any given time we're conducting between 50 and 200 search experiments, all of which are focused on getting you the exact result you're looking for -- faster. And, given that 20% of Google search queries are ones we haven't seen in the past 90 days, and there are well over 300 billion web pages to crawl, you can imagine the extent of that challenge!

With 2009 coming to a close (not to mention the first decade of the millennium), now is a good time to look back over the evolution of time-to-result with a nod towards what's to come in 2010 and beyond.

In the beginning of the decade, many of us were like student drivers: we used search to navigate the web feeling apprehensive and deliberate with navigation (the excruciating wait times with dial-up modems didn't make it easy either!) Since then, we've all learned how to search better and faster, especially as the web has developed and diversified over time. As more and different types of information came online, we searched for it -- news, video, books, and maps became part of our daily search diet. Today, the majority of Internet users have become experienced web warriors, armed with broadband access, faster computers, and blazing fast browsers, and the time it takes to get the perfect search result has increasingly become more and more important. As a result, Internet usage behavior across the web has shifted -- and not just on Google. Recently, for example, Akamai published a study which found that Internet users in 2009 expect web pages to load twice as fast as they did in 2006. This expectation of latency is not limited to web page load time. Research firm Tubemogul found that more than 81 percent of all online video viewers click away if they encounter a video that's rebuffering. Speed matters now more than ever -- we don't have the time or tolerance to wait.

Our own years of testing have conclusively shown that when speed of a feature or product improves, usage, quite simply, goes up. During the early development of Google Maps for mobile, we went with compressed tiles over uncompressed map tiles, a difference barely perceptible to the human eye. The compression resulted in two to three times the increase in speed, and ultimately doubled usage of maps. But it's not just about actual latency -- it's also about perceived latency. During the development of Google News, which is quite a dynamic and complicated page, we broke the results page into smaller blocks of HTML, appearing above and below the fold. This smart tabling dramatically improves the way you perceive the page's load time. Although Google News takes about 8 seconds to fully load due to the richness of the page, the results you first see above the fold are there nearly instantly, thus altering that perception of latency.

So, it's clear speed and latency enhancements are an important focus for us, especially since they make the experience you have with our products much more useful and enjoyable. Above all else, we care about getting you an answer as fast as possible, and we do this through not only improving our search results but also by working with the web community to speed up the entire web. 2009 brought some incredible advancements that are worth noting.

In 2009, our "under the hood" infrastructure focus became more pronounced, as we kicked off our Make the Web Faster campaign. Our goal has been simple, to make the web browsing experience as fast as turning the pages of a magazine. To help increase browsing speeds, we released projects such as Page Speed to help webmasters optimize their sites, and Google Public DNS, to help people obtain faster, safer, and more valid DNS results.​ Finally, we started work on SPDY, pronounced "SPeeDY" -- a new protocol designed to minimize latency. The notion of these "under the hood" improvements are vital to building a faster web. But what about the relevance and comprehensiveness of the actual "result" aspect of time-to-result?

Early this year, we saw a lot of evidence that people are getting much more sophisticated in their searching, asking Google to solve harder problems (for example, by making longer and more complex queries). For this reason, in 2009 alone we have released many improvements: nearly 500 ranking changes; well over 100 UI changes; tripled how much you see in local universal results; brought personalized search to all users; and tripled the frequency with which you see images when you enter a query. To better help you choose from the results we improved the way that we summarize the results by dynamically varying the length of the description, creating jump-to shortcuts that take you straight to the relevant section of a page, and displaying the site hierarchy to inform you of the context of the page within the website. To save time and keystrokes, we now show you universal search features in Suggest; try searching for for weather, currency conversions, or flight status. This dramatically improves your ability to benefit from previous queries, getting you answers more quickly and easily than ever before. And just last week, we brought speed to a whole new level with realtime search -- so that you can find information that is literally just seconds old.

As these "time-to-result" efforts continue to emerge in 2010, we'll keep pushing the envelope on indexing speed, accuracy, and comprehensiveness. And that means you can expect the search experience to get more social, more personal, more interactive, and more ubiquitous -- getting you the information you're exactly looking for when and where you need it. Ultimately, the faster you get what you're looking for, the more enriched your life will be, and that makes us very happy. So what's the ultimate goal in the future? Allowing only a single barrier to instantly getting you the search result you're looking for -- the speed of light.

Here's to a great 2009, and an even greater 2010 in search!