Amid the flurry of news over Microsoft’s bid for Yahoo and Google’s rebuttal, a research announcement by Google went largely unnoticed. Last week, the search giant began a public experiment in which users can make their search results look a little different from the rest of the world’s. Those who sign up are able to switch between different views, so instead of simply getting a list of links (and sometimes pictures and YouTube videos, a relatively recent addition to the Google results), they can choose to see their results mapped, put on a timeline, or narrowed down by informational filters. Dan Crow, product manager at Google, says that the results of the experiment could eventually help the company improve everyone’s search experience.
Google’s experiment highlights the slow but steady push of engineers and designers to improve the Web search experience for the masses. While search algorithms are constantly improving, the interface has remained static for more than a decade: people submit keyword queries, and the engine spits back a list of 10 hyperlinked results. “If you compare Google search-result listings today to the Infoseek results in 1997, they’re almost indistinguishable [in terms of presentation], except for the ads,” says Marti Hearst, a professor in the School of Information at the University of California, Berkeley.
Hearst says that there continue to be attempts from non-Google engines to offer alternatives to the standard search interface. Ask.com, for instance, lets a user see a thumbnail view of each Web page before she clicks through to the link. And Clusty.com extracts words that are found on the search-results pages, letting a user drill down to a more specific search. For instance, a search for “MIT” can be specified to include references to “laboratory,” “Massachusetts Institute of Technology,” “project,” and other words or word combinations.
But these slight alterations in search have been slow to catch on, as is evident from Google’s dominance in the field and its relatively conservative approach to its user interface. Hearst thinks that many people tend to use Google and other simple interfaces for a couple of reasons. One is that search engines must accommodate a wide range of users, from the novice to the savvy. Less experienced users tend to get distracted when more information is presented on the screen, she says: people don’t respond well to being overloaded with information, especially when they want a simple answer to a query. But perhaps more important, she says, is the fact that people are familiar with a decade-old interface and, as creatures of habit, they are reluctant to try something new.
Google’s Crow says that people are generally happy with the interface as it exists today. “The basic format hasn’t changed much because it’s been successful … It works well for most of the users most of the time,” he says. “But that doesn’t mean we couldn’t do something beyond search today.”