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Just two months after the announcement of Google Instant, Google is unveiling another big change to its main search product: Through a feature called Google Instant Previews, users will be able to see screenshots of each search result.

Raj Krishnan, a product manager on Google Web search, said today’s news is connected to Google Instant (which displays and refines search results as you type your query) because both features help users find the search result they’re looking for more quickly. There’s a lot of information about a webpage that’s hard to convey with a link and a few snippets of text, he said.

With a screenshot, you can see where your search terms fall on the page, whether multiple terms show up close together, and whether a page contains charts, lists, images, and so on. If your search term has multiple meanings, a screenshot can also help you see whether a webpage matches the meaning you had in mind — whether it’s a page about Apple the computer product versus apple the fruit, for example. And you get a general feel for what kind of webpage you’re looking at, whether it’s a cleanly designed, professional website, or something poorly laid out and overwhelming.

One of Google’s goals for Instant Previews was to make the process as fast as possible, Krishnan said. It should take less than a tenth of a second to load each preview. Users bring up a preview by clicking on the magnifying glass next to a result, then they can hover over any magnifying glass to see a preview of that result. With the fast load times, it should feel “instantaneous” as they scroll between the previews of multiple search results, Krishnan said. In the background, Google has added these webpage snapshots to its index of the Web, although it can also fetch new screenshots that seem relevant during your actual search.

Early tests showed that people who users with Instant Previews are 5 percent happier with the search result they click on, which Krishnan said is a big improvement.

Google wants to add Instant Previews to its mobile search results too, he said, but the interface will need a significant redesign since there’s less screen space to work with and you don’t have a hovering mouse.

I imagine these previews could also make Google’s big moneymaker — the advertising that runs alongside its search results — more valuable. When I asked about adding Instant Previews to ads, Krishnan said, “Yes, it is something we’re exploring, but there are no set dates that I can talk about.”

It’s impressive how much Google’s search results have changed in just the last couple of months, especially since there was a period a few years ago when search barely seemed to be changing at all. The Instant Previews feature seems particularly noteworthy since Google has been notoriously protective about its search results and has resisted adding anything that might clutter up the page. Whenever you ask about competition, company executives like to say that they’re more focused on improving their own products in response to user needs, but it’s probably no coincidence that Google’s making big improvements as it feels pressure from Microsoft’s Bing.

Google plans to roll out the Instant Previews features globally over the next few days. Users in right-to-left languages like Hebrew and Farsi will have to wait a little longer.


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