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November 9, 2010 at 6:00 AM

Google adds “Instant Previews,” gets more visual

Get ready for another significant change in the way Google looks and works.

The seach giant today is rolling out “Instant Previews” on its Web search page, giving users the ability to quickly get a peek at the Web pages listed in search results. The feature goes live today and will be available in more than 40 languages over the next few days. Here’s a page where you can try the feature if you’re not seeing it yet on Google’s main page.

Goog-preview2.jpg

Search results will display a small magnifying glass icon on the right side of links. When you click the icon, it launches “Instant Preview” mode. In that mode, a large preview pane pops up on the right when you hover the cursor over any of the search results.

It’s not just a thumbnail image of a Web page. Google highlights where your search terms appear on the page. If it’s a long page, the preview image is cut, pasted and displayed in such a way that you see the upper portion and the lower portion where the search terms appear. Google calls this a “tear” and displays a jagged line, as shown below.

goog-tears2.jpg

It’s a cousin to Google’s “cached” feature, which shows snippets of Web pages, highlighting where search terms appear in the pages. But instead of just showing a snippet, previews show an image of the page with the relevant portion highlighted.

Ben Gomes, a Google distinguished engineer at its Mountain View, Calif., headquarters who worked on the project, characterized the new feature as an evolutionary step in the company’s ongoing effort to make searching faster and more precise.

It builds on the “instant” search feature launched in September, which predicts what you’re searching for as you type and begins delivering results.

“This is going to make the next step, finding the right result, much faster,” he said.

The previews give users a peek at pages’ look and feel, helping them decide whether to proceed.

Previews take advantage of Google’s early decision to capture and index full Web pages. There’s now enough computation power available to almost instantly present vivid page previews with results shown in context.

“Essentially we need to know where every word on the Web is placed. That’s a non-trivial task,” Gomes said.

Previews are displayed generally in less than a tenth of a second. (UPDATE: Gomes said that fetching images of all the pages in a search and figuring out where words are laid out “sometimes takes several seconds.” That work will be taking place after you first click a magnifying glass icon.) That’s really fast, but still slower than general search results, which take a few hundred milliseconds to assemble.

Gomes said the speed and smoothness of the feature make it feel almost like an application.

It also makes Google results more visual. The search giant has added more flair in recent years but remains minimalist compared with Bing’s more visual presentation.

Google claims that people who have used Instant Previews — which has been undergoing closed testing — are about 5 percent more likely to be satisfied with the results they click.

I wonder if this will up the ante for Web design. Site owners may be prodded to improve the appearance of their sites, to make it as grabby as their keywords.

Gomes said previews may have that effect. It may also reward sites that are already well designed, he said.

“Webmasters have put a lot of effort into their design already and I hope it gives them a win for doing that,” he said.

Another example:

goog-yosem.jpg

Comments | Topics: bing, Google, instant previews

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