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How Google Instant Could Reinvent Channel Flipping

Google’s new Instant search autoloads search results as you type. I’m sceptical that it’ll save 50 kajillion man-hours once you add up all the milliseconds saved. Its real-use cases are still on the way: local, mobile and video search.

Part of the inherent silliness of doing a Google Instant search on the wide open web is the sheer size and heterogeneity of the data sets you’re working with. Google has no idea whether you’re looking for a quote, a movie title, a blog, a government site or a string of text you remember sticking into a .doc file months ago. So it spits out a similarly wild range of results.

Now let’s suppose we narrow that data set. Suppose I’m not looking at every string of text on the web but for movie or television titles on the new Google TV.

When I begin to enter text, Google will have a much better idea of what I’m looking for. In fact, it might actually be able to give me what I’m looking for even when I don’t know what that is.

The key to the next generation of TV is likely to be search, and the biggest drag on search is going to be text entry. This isn’t your laptop; people are going to be banging out text on remotes and mini keyboards in bad light. Anything a company can do to minimise the number of keystrokes and make that process as painless as possible is going to be a tremendous usability boon to its customers.

If Google TV is really going to be the “one screen to rule them all“, it has to solve that problem.

Suppose I’m looking for a movie I saw years ago. I can’t remember anything about it except it was an action movie and that I think the word “China” was in the title. IMDB.com might be able to tell me the title and the year, but I’d have to click on each one, then click again to find the plot synopsis, just to discover that it wasn’t the movie I was looking for.

Instead, I might type “C-h-i” into a future Google product – let’s call it Instant Movie Search – quickly discard all the variations on “Chicago” and get to “China”. I know I don’t want “Chinatown” or “The China Syndrome”. In the sidebar, I see that I can narrow it by “Action/Adventure”. Perfect. And there it is: “Big Trouble In Little China”. It shows me a movie poster thumbnail, a short synopsis and a cast list – even before I click on the title! Then I can go ahead and queue it up.

Instead of drilling down and back out through dozens of pages, I’ve typed five characters and clicked one menu link. Not only did I find what I was looking for, I knew that it was what I was looking for with a high degree of confidence before ever clicking on the link – indeed, before I ever glanced at the title. As soon as I saw that poster of Kurt Russell and Kim Cattrall out of the corner of my eye, I knew that was the movie I wanted.

Gmail already does this with contacts, and it’s a big time saver. Now extend that concept to a half-dozen other forms of local search: Google Books, Google Scholar, Froogle, Desktop, News, Reader, Apps. Imagine it in all of Google’s local search sites, popping up thumbnails and textual descriptions.

We already have an analogous mode of search in the analogue tech world – flipping through channels on television or scanning the dial on the radio. Simple up-down TV channel flipping, though, can’t make finer distinctions the closer it gets to your target, and analogue radio tuners can’t deliver the same precision. But both have the virtue that they can present what you’re looking for while you’re in the process of looking for it. Search engines couldn’t do that before. Now they can.

Right now, Google Instant is just a game, the alphanumeric equivalent of the Google buckyball logo from the other day. The real innovations in discovery are still on their way.

Wired.com has been expanding the hive mind with technology, science and geek culture news since 1995.

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