When a person signs up for the “alternate views” experiment on the Google Labs page, he essentially adds three search filters to his results page: “Info view,” “Timeline view,” and “Map view.” (See below image). By default, a search for “Grateful Dead” serves up results in the “List view,” which is essentially the standard results page. If a user selects Map view, he could see a map indicating where the group originated (San Francisco), and where it performed its last show (New York City). Clicking on Timeline view provides a bar graph of dates associated with the group–important concerts, for instance–over the years. And Info view lets the user filter the search by dates, measurements (in this case, Google offers units of years and, oddly, tons), locations, and images.
Crow says that when a person signs up for the experiment, Google collects the same information about his searches that the company would otherwise. This includes noting the search terms and result links that are selected, as well as logging the amount of time a user stays on the page of the selected link. Crow notes that all of the information collected is stripped of any identifying information. This data, in addition to market research collected from participants who visit Google’s offices and participants who allow Google to come into their homes to track their search habits, will be used to determine the most helpful features of the experiment, and how best to sprinkle those features into search results without upsetting users, he says.
Improving the search interface isn’t easy, but it’s a crucial part of the technology, says Oren Etzioni, a professor of computer science and engineering at the University of Washington. There are billions of Web pages, and the results page only reveals 10 pages at a time. “Search is the process of drinking from the fire hose,” Etzioni says. “This means that getting the user interface right … is incredibly important.” He doesn’t see anything revolutionary about Google’s experimental views in particular, but “throwing things out there and letting people react is very smart.” He believes that in the next couple of years, search will evolve to provide more interface options for people, and not everyone will be using the same interface.
Search will change, but it will be a gradual process, since there’s a fine line between providing helpful information and overwhelming the user with text and links. “One thing to remember is that it’s still the early days,” Google’s Crow says. “People think that search is a solved problem. I think we’re still in the early days of making search work on a universal global scale. We know we can do better.”