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A need for speed

Google knows faster will make the Web better — and more profitable

Stephen Vinter, a Google executive, says Google’s mission is “to make information more readily accessible and useful.’’ Stephen Vinter, a Google executive, says Google’s mission is “to make information more readily accessible and useful.’’ (David L. Ryan/ Globe Staff)
By Hiawatha Bray
Globe Staff / May 23, 2010

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Nobody thinks the Internet is fast enough. But the online search company Google Inc. is doing something about it. In fact, many of the company’s 100 engineers in Cambridge think about little else.

Like other Internet titans, such as Microsoft Corp. and Yahoo Inc., Google engineers are striving to wring more performance from the network. They’re working on a new Internet browser that will display text and images faster, and a new operating system that’s supposed to boot up a computer in seconds instead of minutes. They’re designing tools for website creators to help build faster-loading pages, while modifying the Web’s basic communications protocols so computers will download pages more quickly. It’s all about making the Internet faster for Google users, and for the rest of us.

“Of course our business benefits when people find the Web more useful,’’ said Stephen Vinter, engineering director at Google’s Cambridge lab. “We have a chance to make money when people do searches or browse sites that run our ads. But it’s deeper than that. This goes right to the core of Google’s mission, which is to make information more readily accessible and useful.’’

Since every online business stands to gain from a faster global network, Google’s got plenty of allies. At Intercontinental Hotel Group, a British company that owns Holiday Inn, Google website design tools helped reduce page download times at the chain’s site by more than two seconds, or 40 percent faster. “A higher performing website is not just a better user experience,’’ said Bryson Koehler, Intercontinental’s senior vice president of global revenue and guest technology, “but translates into happier customers who actually book more.’’

Now Intercontinental is working with Google on some of its most advanced technical efforts, “from the network to the browser to the protocols,’’ Koehler said.

Google’s rivals like Microsoft and Yahoo conduct similar efforts in their own labs. But Google has been unusually aggressive in its quest for speed. The company plans to build its own ultra-fast experimental data network to deliver Internet speeds about 100 times faster than most broadband customers now get. More than 1,100 cities and towns are bidding to host the network, including Boston and some other Massachusetts communities.

But raw bandwidth isn’t enough. Many other bottlenecks slow the surfing experience. “There’s a lot of different things at many points in the chain that can be optimized,’’ said Jesse Robbins, cochairman of Velocity, an annual engineering conference that studies ways to boost Internet speed. “Each one of them provides discrete performance benefits.’’

Even after words and images arrive at our computers, our Web browsers often don’t display them quickly enough. So Vinter’s team is helping Google build its own browser, called Chrome, as an alternative to Microsoft’s Internet Explorer or the Mozilla Firefox browser.

Developing its own browser helps Google in other ways, according to Danny Sullivan, editor in chief of SearchEngineLand.com, an online trade publication based in Newport Beach, Calif. Sullivan said that Google is always in danger that archrival Microsoft could make changes to its browser that would cripple the delivery of Google’s online services. “That’s Google’s nightmare scenario,’’ Sullivan said. “The cure for that nightmare is the Google browser.’’

In addition, Google’s Cambridge researchers are working on a new operating system for inexpensive netbook computers, also called Chrome. Starting up a computer running Microsoft’s Windows or Apple Inc.’s Mac OS will generally take a couple of minutes. Vinter said that the goal for Chrome OS is much less. “If it takes more than two seconds to open up a netbook,’’ said Vinter, “that’s too long by our standards.’’

Google is working on other speed-boosting projects that end users will never see. HTTP, the Hypertext Transfer Protocol that sends data over the Internet to browsers, has features that slow down the rendering of complex Web pages. In Cambridge, Google is working on an alternative called SPDY, an experimental protocol that could someday speed up page downloads by 50 percent.

Web page designers can also improve site performance with a few simple tweaks to their code. Google’s Page Speed is a free program that examines a website and spots coding mistakes that needlessly extend download times.

Even a small slowdown in Web performance can have large consequences. Google knows, because it has been experimenting on us.

The Cambridge researchers deliberately slow the performance of Google’s Internet search service for some randomly chosen users. It’s a trivial slowdown — four-10ths of a second per search at most — but it’s enough to cause the affected users to cut back on their Web searching. “If you delay the search results as much as a quarter of a second, you start to detect people not clicking on Web search results as much,’’ said Vinter. The decrease is tiny; a fraction of a percent for each individual. But for Google or any other website that serves millions of users, the decline quickly adds up to millions of lost page visits per month.

Speeding up the Internet just a little will mean millions of added Web searches and online purchases, as well as millions more clicks on Google’s highly profitable online advertisements. No wonder the Internet can never be fast enough to suit Google.

Hiawatha Bray can be reached at bray@globe.com.