Google Steps Up Its Search-Engine Game

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Google's homepage

Google makes one of the world's leading mobile operating systems. It does e-mail and an office suite and photo sharing and Internet phone service, and does them all well. It's even getting into solar power and is trying to invent the self-driving car. But for all its far-flung ambition, the company isn't synonymous with many things. It's synonymous with one thing: its namesake search engine, the business that started it all.

At a press conference in San Francisco this week, a small army of Google search honchos took the stage to reveal new stuff. Unlike last September's launch event for Google Instant, which shows results as you type, this one didn't involve any single radical change. Instead, it spotlighted a bunch of medium-size tweaks that Google will be rolling out in the days and weeks to come.

The refinements aren't responses to any immediate threat to the company's search-engine supremacy. Its market share remains stable and overwhelming: According to Comscore, Google powers just under two-thirds of all Web searches. Microsoft's Bing is growing nicely, but it seems to be luring users from smaller players, including Yahoo, whose search is now built on top of Bing. And most of today's other interesting search engines come from tiny upstarts such as Blekko and DuckDuckGo. Clearly, Google has a healthy fear of the sort of complacency that's gradually crippled so many other tech giants in the past. (Hello, MySpace!)

The event kicked off with changes to Google's mobile version, which melds classic features with ones tailored for on-the-go use. For instance, its homepage now features quick links to restaurants, coffee and bars: click on any of them and you go directly to a selection of spots in your neighborhood, plus a map that updates automatically as you peruse the listings. Another new mobile feature improves on the existing one that shows search suggestions as you type. Now some of them are accompanied by a plus sign that pulls up related queries. For example, when I typed "farm" I got "farmers insurance" with a plus sign. Tapping on it got me suggestions such as "farmers insurance claims" and "farmers insurance login," either of which I could select with a total of just six taps.

Next, a Google exec lamented that not everybody knows that the company's iPhone and Android apps let you speak into your phone to initiate a search. Google is going to spread the word about its Voice Search offering by bringing it to the desktop, or at least the desktops of folks who use its Chrome browser. When you go to the Google homepage in Chrome, its search field will sport a microphone icon. Click it and you'll be able to say your search terms into your computer's mike, saving you the trouble of typing queries that are wordy or hard to spell.

Rather than making you type or say your search, Google is going to offer yet another option: showing it. Already, the Google Goggles app for iPhones and Android handsets allows you to start a search by pointing your phone's camera at a real-world object such as a book or food package. Now Google is using the same technology to allow you to drag an image off your computer's hard drive and into the search field. In a demo, it uploaded a snapshot of a beach. The search engine analyzed the photo's pixels, identified the Greek island where it was taken, and returned a list of links about that locale. Even if this isn't a feature many people will use all that often, it's a dazzling feat.

Google saved the new feature with the greatest potential to make the largest number of people happy until last. It's called Instant Pages, and it aims to dramatically reduce the delay between when you click on a search result and when the page in question is fully loaded in your browser. While you're examining a page of search results, Instant Pages will be busy behind the scenes, silently downloading and rendering the first page in the results. If you then click on that top result — and odds are that you will — the page will pop into place nearly instantly in many cases.

According to Google, Instant Pages can typically save you 2 to 5 seconds per search. What's not to like? Just one thing, really — like Voice Search, it only works in Google's own Web browser, Chrome. That could change in the future: Google says that it built Instant Pages using open standards that other browser makers can use and that it may add it to a future version of its Google Toolbar for Internet Explorer and Firefox. But for now, Chrome users will get the most Googley version of Google.

Taken one by one, all these new features look good. Here's the thing, though: This search engine didn't get where it was today by having the most features. It thrived because it gave you almost nothing but a minimalist search field on an otherwise barren homepage — and was still able to deliver the most relevant results in the business. The Google staffers at this week's event kept reiterating that the company is obsessively committed to making its products as fast as possible. But for this Google user, at least, simplicity trumps even speed.

Even before the new announcements, I'd been fretting about Google getting dragged into the sinkhole of cluttered complexity. For instance, I'm still not entirely sold on Google Instant, the feature that gives you results before you're done asking for them. When I type "john" into the search field, I immediately get information on John Wayne Airport in Irvine, California — which strikes me as an unhelpful interruption if I'm beginning a search for John Paul Jones or Johnny Cash. (As a reality check, I asked my Twitter pals what they thought of Instant and found that they were roughly equally divided into fans, haters and indifferent types.)

I'm not saying that Google is blundering by adding so many new capabilities. Overall, in fact, it's long done an expert job of weaving new functionality in so artfully that it's easy to forget it wasn't always there. But when you're as good as Google already is, you don't have to evolve into something different — you just need to keep on being yourself, only more so. And the more Google changes, the tougher that's going to get.

McCracken blogs about personal technology at Technologizer, which he founded in 2008 after nearly two decades as a tech journalist; on Twitter, he's @harrymccracken. His column, also called Technologizer, appears every Thursday on