Caffeine: It's Google On Red Bull, Or Something

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2906514471_01fd1a7549Search Engines are like sharks: If they stop moving, they die.

Okay, I’m not even sure if that’s really true about sharks. In fact, I’m pretty sure it’s not. But still, it is true about search engines, in that they have to keep innovating and updating, if for nothing else to stay ahead of spammers. Google, as the king of search engines, obviously has been doing that constantly throughout the years. Some of the changes are noticeable, but most are subtle tweaks on a rolling basis.

But today, the company has begun testing a new engine for its search product that’s a big enough change that it felt compelled to let the world know about it. Codenamed “Caffeine”, it promises to “push the envelope on size, indexing speed, accuracy, comprehensiveness and other dimensions.”

The test, available here: http://www2.sandbox.google.com/, really doesn’t look any different at first glance. And Google notes as much, saying that these changes are primarily under the hood. When you hear that, most people will probably assume this means speed in showing results.

So is it any faster? It’s hard to tell. Most results on Google are already so fast, that shaving a nanosecond here or there hardly seems to matter. By Google’s own counter (which show up along the top of every Google result page next to the number of results), the results are mixed. Sometimes Caffeine wins, sometimes regular old Google wins.

But reading Google’s statement, it seems that by “indexing speed” they may mean the speed at which they index pages behind the scenes, putting them in the results. It’s difficult to test that immediately, it seems like something you may start to notice over time as content comes in faster.

One thing I do notice is that across the board, Caffeine seems to have more results in its index than regular Google does. But it’s hard to tell if that really matters since most people never get to the end of the millions of results for items (and for most, in fact, you can’t).

In terms of actual results, they seem to be mostly the same. Doing the same search on each, a few results change positions, and some different ones appear, but it’s largely the same for the words I tested.

Google’s Matt Cutts worked on the project and has a Q&A on his own blog that is interesting. Here’s my favorite part:

Q: Is this Caffeine Update because of Company X or Y is doing Z?
A: Nope. I love competition in search and want lots of it, but this change has been in the works for months. I think the best way for Google to do well in search is to continue what we’ve done for the last decade or so: focus relentlessly on pushing our search quality forward. Nobody cares more about search than Google, and I don’t think we’ll ever stop trying to improve.

To me that brings to mind two companies immediately: Twitter and Bing. Those are the two services doing the most interesting things around search right now that could potentially challenge Google. But the Google team claims it has been working on this project in secret for the past “several months,” so if you believe that, it stands to reason that this at least probably isn’t a direct response to Bing, which is newer.

And I like that answer. Too many companies focus on directly going after competitors by doing exactly what they’re doing, or attempting to. With Caffeine, it doesn’t appear Google is trying to do that, but instead is just trying to improve what it already does well. Of course, you can have that luxury when you’re the king.

I do wonder though if Google doesn’t do anything to change the appearance of its results, even if those changes are meaningless (adding more pictures, etc), if users won’t perceive that its rivals are out-maneuvering it. Still, better results cannot hurt, especially as some tests suggest that the rivals may be catching up to Google in that regard.

Google is doing this public test now to get feedback from users, presumably before deploying it into wide release on google.com.

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[photo: flickr/mararie]

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