The Pros and Cons of Google Instant

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Google's search engine is getting a major makeover today. Mountain View's finest debuted Google Instant today, which returns results for you as you type.

Now, let's be clear: the search engine itself didn't change much today. Pages will be ranked exactly where they were before. But the user experience just changed considerably, as Google executives and engineers emphasized in a San Francisco press conference.

Predictably, they trumpeted the benefits of the service. With Google Instant, they say users save an average of two to five seconds per search. Multiplied by the billions of searches that Google users execute each day, the societal time savings add up.

I also love one feature. As you're searching, Google is auto-completing other searches for you. Hit your down arrow and you see those results. So, let's see you start off searching for "The End of Men," but you realize you'd rather search for "The End of World," when Google shows it to you. This happens:

End of the world_600.jpg

There are two pretty glaring downsides to Google Instant, though. First, it is a visually intense experience, possibly even an overwhelming one.Tech journalist John Pavlus described it as "like having a websearch seizure. [The] screen explodes with noise as you type."

Second -- and this is more subtle -- I worry that Google is driving more traffic to the most statistically probable searches. The most-trafficked ways of searching for something will get more trafficked. I wouldn't be surprised to see the number of unique searches drop because people see something in the list that makes sense, even if it's not exactly how they'd have put it.

This may only be a slight narrowing of our collective imagination, but it's worth noting because it's another way in which algorithmic suggestions or restrictions shape our behavior,  even (or especially) when they are soft and/or useful.

Former Googler Kevin Marks made an apropos point on his personal blog last night, "I do wonder about Eric Schmidt's grand vision of Google predicting what we will want to do before we think of it ourselves," Marks wrote. "Will it in fact be what we wanted, or will it be a mishmash of expected behaviours, that we'll regret on our deathbeds?"
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Alexis C. Madrigal

Alexis Madrigal is the deputy editor of TheAtlantic.com. He's the author of Powering the Dream: The History and Promise of Green Technology. More

The New York Observer has called Madrigal "for all intents and purposes, the perfect modern reporter." He co-founded Longshot magazine, a high-speed media experiment that garnered attention from The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and the BBC. While at Wired.com, he built Wired Science into one of the most popular blogs in the world. The site was nominated for best magazine blog by the MPA and best science website in the 2009 Webby Awards. He also co-founded Haiti ReWired, a groundbreaking community dedicated to the discussion of technology, infrastructure, and the future of Haiti.

He's spoken at Stanford, CalTech, Berkeley, SXSW, E3, and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, and his writing was anthologized in Best Technology Writing 2010 (Yale University Press).

Madrigal is a visiting scholar at the University of California at Berkeley's Office for the History of Science and Technology. Born in Mexico City, he grew up in the exurbs north of Portland, Oregon, and now lives in Oakland.

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