Google Instant: Personalization, The Paradox of Choice and Altered Behavior

Google Instant is a fundamental change in Google Search and possibly the way search is conducted. As with a change, there are always a bunch of pros & cons worth exploring. Instant is certainly a good enhancement for end users, but what about webmasters?


– Faster search

According to Marissa Mayer, Google Instant saves you 2-5 seconds per search. That’s not a lot, but considering the volume of searches per day it adds up. Some people have gone as far to calculate that Google Instant can save as much as 350 million search hours a year for its users (it’s useless math in my opinion, but still fun 🙂 ).

Slow-typing users (who type below 30-40 Words Per Minute) will significantly benefit from Google Instant. Also, the average typing speed seems to be around 30-40 WPM (source: Wikipedia). I can say with confidence that Google Instant will probably significantly benefit the average Google user as well.

For example, if I want to find more about World Cup 2014, and type that keyword into Google, look what I get:

I immediately get results below if I’m interested in finding out more details about World Cup 2014. The suggestion box is where things get interesting. Google is trying to predict whether I might want to buy or learn more about the tickets and the packages. I can also learn more about the World Cup 2014 ball (soccer fans love this). Neat stuff.

– More informed and personalized search

The interesting thing about the suggestion box is that it’s personalized, that means, Google will try to predict what you’re trying to find based on your previous search activity. The goal here is to give you as much relevant suggestions as possible. With the new Google Instant (which offers 5 suggestions max. instead of 10) there’s a higher probability you’ll click on the suggested results, more on that later).

Example: Say I want to learn more about a specific person. Let’s take Yuri Andropov (who was a famous leader in the Soviet Union and had connections with the KGB).

In 3 seconds, I’ve learned that I can learn more about his funeral, the speculations that he was Jewish and about his brigade. Compare this to the Google with Instant Turned Off:

There are 2 subtle but powerful psychological reasons here that will make you more likely to click and explore the suggested results on the previous screen (with Google Instant turned on) than on this one.

1) Notice the number of suggestions you’re given in Google Instant? It’s 5 maximum. In the classic version, the maximum version of suggestions was 10 (in the picture above it’s 8, probably because Google couldn’t find more, if they found 2 more then they would display that).

There’s a well-documented psychological principle called ‘paradox of choice’. In a study (done by Iyengar and Mark Lepper), there was a booth set up with 24 jam flavors and another booth set up with 6 jam flavors. The passersby could sample the variety of jams and choose to buy the ones they liked. Here is the interesting part: Only 3% of them bought from the 24 flavor stand, compared to the 30% who bought from the 6 flavor stand. They chose more products from the flavor stand that had less options to choose.

As a general principle, giving people too much choices makes them choose less. I think that Google noticed this and decided to shorten the maximum number of suggestions they give from 10 to 5, resulting in more people using their Suggest option.

2) With Google Instant, it’s enough to just type 1 letter and you’re already searching! Results are starting to show up!

This invokes a psychological principle which says:

“Reframing a goal as one that’s been started but not completed rather than as one that has not yet begun means that people feel more motivated to complete it”. (you can read more here).

Now, searching on Google begins with a letter instead of typing and pressing ‘enter’ so people are much more likely to search again. Compare:


Same effort, different results.


– A skew in keyword impression numbers

If you search on Google and a suggested result shows up, and then you stay on that result for more than 3 seconds, Google will count that as an impression. This ‘3 seconds rule’ has one flaw in my opinion:

What if it takes me more than 3 seconds to think what I want to choose from the suggested list? Or I have something else on my mind before I decide to choose other query and not the one Google suggested me?

I believe that it took quite a debate and observing how people use Google Instant for Google to come up with 3 seconds, instead of 4 or 2. If they see a big skew in impression numbers they’ll probably going to adjust for more-or-less time. It all depends on factors like the one I gave above.

– Bias against extremely long-tail queries

This was already started by Google Suggest and is probably going to be even stronger with Google Instant. Marissa Mayer also said that the way people search is probably going to change with Google Instant. I think this is going to be part of the change. Users will think twice before typing an extremely long query if they want to find the most relevant result for what they’re searching for (they probably won’t want 10 results to show before they type their final, 8-word query).

This can be a good thing, though. Google is not perfect and is generally better in showing relevant results for short-tail queries. This is maybe part of their strategy: “We will probably not get much better in serving extremely relevant results for long-tail queries, so let’s give users an incentive to search with short-tail keywords”.

This can be a problem for smaller sites who rely on long-tail traffic and might have to adjust their strategy to target shorter keywords which means learning some Search Engine Optimization.

I can’t really see any con from a users perspective. Overall, Google Instant makes it easier & faster for people to do what they’ve always done on Google: searching for information or buying stuff.

Darko is an editor on, his latest post on 25 Free People Search Engines outlines various websites you can use for finding people online.