How Google Instant Got My Homepage Back

I’ve been using web browsers since Mosaic and Netscape Navigator.  In my entire web browsing history, I think I’ve set my browser home page a total of 3 times.  Google Instant has made me switch again…

What do you have as your browser homepage?  What’s the first thing you see when you open your browser window?  Facebook?  Your work site?  A weather page?  If you think about it (and not many people do), your browser homepage setting is your way of saying, “this page represents the one thing that’s most useful to me — the one thing I want to deal with as soon as I start browsing.”

(As a side note…my wife has set her Firefox profile to start not one, but 5 pages on startup: Facebook, Feedly, NPR, Hulu, and Pandora.  No matter what she’s planning on getting on the web to do, Pandora starts playing, which drives me crazy).

Clearly, I’m not the only one thinking about browser homepages.  Facebook recently started asking users to make Facebook their homepage, and provided a handy bookmarklet to help users make the switch.

Facebook started prompting users to make Facebook their homepage, and even provided a drag-and-drop bookmarklet to do so.

Back in the day, say around 1995, Yahoo was THE place to find new and interesting websites (they had a dedicated staff that searched the web by hand, and sorted them into a directory).  That was my first home page.  Later, Yahoo created My Yahoo!, which aggregated a variety of sources and let you create a personalized front page.  That was my second home page, but not for long.  It had two problems: 1) it was slow to load, and 2) there’s no way to really accurately predict what I needed to see when I started my browser.  And so, probably in 2002, I just turned off browser home pages; I asked the browser to load a blank page on start up.

Google’s recent launch of Google Instant has made me change my browser home page again.  I really think Google has hit a sweet spot between speed and flexibility.  When I open my browser, I want it to open and be usable immediately.  Just like I want my TV to come on immediately, or I want my computer to book quickly…I don’t want to wait to start doing whatever it is I wanted to do when I double clicked the icon.  A couple quick tests indicated that the Google Homepage with Instant completes page load and is usable in less than 3 seconds.  Facebook, for comparison, took between 5-6 seconds.  Doesn’t sound like much, but how many times do you open a web browser each day, or month, or year?  It adds up.

But the real value to me is not the speed of loading, but that Google Instant gets me to whatever I need on the web faster, no matter where it is.  I don’t have to pre-select the sites or information I want to see.  Instead, the instant feedback between my search query and the results make is seem like Google is an actively helping me ask questions and find whatever information I need at the time.

Let’s look at it another way.  There are a few sites — Facebook, Google Mail, My Yahoo, delicious — that I visit very frequently.  But there are thousands of sites that I may visit only once, or a handful of times.  Last week, for example, I wanted to find a WordPress Bundle for Textmate.  I found one, and I may never land on any of those website ever again.  This is a classic Long Tail (or power law, if you’re more technical) pattern which appears all over in internet and social media behavior.  The Long Tail pattern means that there’s a good chance that when I get on the internet, I may want to see one of my frequently visited sites, but that there are a lot more sites that I use on an as-needed basis, and can’t really predict exactly which one I will want.

Google Instant provides my with better tools to get at this Long Tail of sites, more quickly.  Because it queries Google’s massive index on each key stroke, taking advantage of specific information about the context of my search: my location, my search history, and probably a whole host of other things.  Because there is so little time lag between my search query, the search term suggestions, and the search results, I can quickly tell Google what I’m looking for today, and I can know immediately whether it understands.

So instead of a command and control interface, where I have to tell the browser exactly what I want to see today, by loading Google Instant as my homepage, I’m engaging in a conversation with the web.  I tell it what I want to know, and it answers in a fast, seamless way.  That’s going to be tough for Facebook, and others, to beat.