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Communications of the ACM


Slow Search

Slow Search, illustrative photo

Credit: Alicia Kubista / Andrij Borys Associates

We live in a world where the pace of everything from communication to transportation is getting faster. In recent years a number of "slow movements" have emerged that advocate for reducing speed in exchange for increasing quality. These include the slow food movement, slow parenting, slow travel, and even slow science. Building on these movements we propose the concept of slow search, where search engines use additional time to provide a higher quality search experience than is possible given conventional time constraints.

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Speed, Speed, Speed

Substantial research and engineering effort has been devoted to achieving low latency in large, complex computing systems such as search engines.6 Search engines target speed for good reason. Research suggests that people perceive results that are delivered quickly as higher quality and more engaging than those delivered more slowly. Online experiments where server-side delays are injected into the delivery of search results have shown negative impact on people's search behavior.11,12 For example, Google reported that intentionally increasing the load time of their search result page by as little as 100 milliseconds decreased the number of searches per person. Further, these differences increased over time and persisted even after the delays were removed. In similar experiments, Bing observed that artificial delays lead to a decrease in the number of queries and clicks, and an increase in time to click. Even improvements that seem like they should positively impact the searcher experience have been shown to have negative outcomes if they increase latency. For example, when Google experimented with returning 30 results instead of 10, they found that the number of searches and revenue dropped significantly because the additional results took a half-second longer to load.10


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