06.23.11

Google will soon try to read your mind

Last week, Google announced a new feature that will help “predict” search results. The product, called “Instant Pages,” will preload the web page it believes the user is most likely to select during a search. The page is then left pre-rendered in the background and loads instantly when clicked on with no lag-time.

The company claims that this feature will save people 3 to 5 seconds per search, as well as deliver better quality results, but there is still some confusion on how “Instant Pages” will affect a web site’s analytics. The main fear is that Google’s pre-rendering will inflate page view and unique visitor numbers, as well as create exaggerated bounce rates when the pre-rendered pages are not clicked on or is ignored because it was the wrong search result.

Google invites webmasters to add this code (ex: <link rel="prerender" href="http://example.org/index.html">) to allow pre-rendering of their web sites, which leads to believe that without the code embedded in the site, pre-rendering shouldn’t be an issue. But that does little to settle the moods of many web masters who are rummaging the web trying to find answers as to the web analytics question. B Tasker mentioned in a Google discussion that he was against the pre-rendering option because it “skews up hit count(s) [and] wastes bandwidth.” To address these concerns, Google has made available a Page Visibility API to run your hit count without interference, but B Tasker doesn’t think that's an acceptable solution. “I can't believe Google honestly expect us to rely on client side scripting if we want an accurate hit count for our pages.” A Page Visibility API is basically a set of “rules” embedded into a web site that allows sites to detect how they are being displayed to the user.

This isn’t the first time a Google pre-rendering feature has created confusion about web analytics. In 2010 Google launched “Instant Preview,” which created a thumbnail sized preview of a search result viewable via a magnifying glass icon. Many web masters complained of unusually high web page hits and traffic, prompting Google to step in find a solution to the issue. In order for a browser to pre-render a page, it needs to gather enough information from the site to create an accurate preview, hence creating some confusion as to how these views will be labeled. In the case of “Instant Pages”, the page will be preloaded entirely in the background and appear instantly once clicked on, surely leaving a page view hit in the process. AVG Antivirus also featured a page preview feature that would search a site preemptively to detect any malware and also caused page hits to jump.

Besides the confusion regarding analytics numbers, many are questioning possible security concerns. In the past, malicious web sites would come up in Google’s results, but it still required a click to open the page, says Lucian Constantin on a Softpedia.com article published on the subject. A pre-rendered malicious page, if treated like a clicked result, may pose security risks for the users.

Even with its potential flaws, Google stands “confident” in the new feature, as confident as they are that users will click on the first “Instant Page” result. The feature will be available with Google Chrome’s beta 13 browser, but will be available soon for Firefox and Explorer.

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