When Yahoo! (YHOO) unveiled a newly revamped search engine on Oct. 2, it was only the latest in a spate of high-profile search redesigns intended to dazzle users away from market leader Google (GOOG). Just a few days earlier, Microsoft (MSFT) had launched an upgrade of its Live Search technology and, in June, IAC/InterActiveCorp (IACI) took the wraps off a radically restyled Ask.com. But the glossy redesigns stir up some nagging questions about the next generation of search.
When Google launched in 1998, its pared down aesthetic, not to mention its highly relevant search results, provided a potent antidote to the overly busy, clunky design of the rest of the Web. It launched a trend for more simplified, easier to use Web design (BusinessWeek.com, 8/6/07) that has itself become common, visible on sites from AOL (TWX) to The New York Times (NYT).
But as different types of content have proliferated, boosted by ever faster connections, the temptation to do more—quickly—has become irresistible. Redesigned search engines appear to be moving toward a more graphics-rich look, in the process abandoning some of the visual simplicity that previously attracted both users and advertisers in droves.
New Content, New Design
"We're seeing the very beginnings of the next big evolution of search," says Gord Hotchkiss, chief executive officer of Enquiro, a search engine marketing firm in Kelowna, British Columbia. Hotchkiss says the change is partly the result of content formats (video, images, etc.) being indexed—but also the result of competitive pressures for search engines to differentiate themselves from one another. At stake: part of the $8 billion that research firm eMarketer forecasts advertisers will spend with search engines this year. Big players are betting that design could be the key to stealing loyal eyeballs—along with the revenue they bring with them.
To varying degrees, each major engine now provides so-called "blended" results, a mixture of text links as well as images, video, maps, and local directory information. (Click the links for more detailed information about the specific changes within Yahoo! (BusinessWeek.com, 10/2/07) or Microsoft's Live Search (BusinessWeek.com, 9/27/07).
Even Google's design has evolved. Its "universal search" concept, revealed in May, serves up images and video alongside text. It's still somewhat minimalist—it hides video within a window that only opens when a user clicks on it, for example. "The challenge is keeping the page simple and easy to read, while at the same time providing users with the useful information we know about, such as thumbnails for videos or publication time for news articles," Johanna Wright, a Google senior product manager, wrote in an e-mail. "But, our user interface is always evolving," she added.
"The real problem for Google is not degrading the user experience as they've defined it," says Hotchkiss of the search giant, which currently has a 64% market share, according to measurement firm Hitwise. "And yet, given the competitive landscape, they can't afford to sit on innovation either."
Too Much Distraction?
A richer experience isn't without risk for search providers. Graphics and video could distract from the lucrative, but typically understated, text ads Google and others count on for revenue. Incorporating more graphics into what has typically been an austere, top-down collection of links could change the dynamics of advertising on the page by distracting from relevant results—and driving away users. "You have the potential to distract people by creating a certain amount of noise," says Greg Sterling of Sterling Market Intelligence, a consulting and research firm.
Jakob Nielsen, co-founder of the usability consulting company Nielsen Norman Group, and a widely respected Web design expert, says that search results work well when they're a combination of link results and relevant ads. According to Nielsen, the design of text-based search ads works: They often directly correspond to a user's problem or search query. Text doesn't invoke "banner blindness," the instinct to ignore flashy, distracting, and often irrelevant graphical ads.
Nielsen's research shows that users typically look at top text ads on Google's results page for two seconds. While that may not seem like much, on other, non-search, Web sites, users typically look at graphical advertising for one-tenth that amount of time, if at all. More complexity, Nielsen says, "violates Google's principle of search and go."
Careful Study of Users
How ads will evolve within the new search environment is a question that remains unanswered. For the moment, text-based ads have not changed. Sterling says Google has hinted at coming changes but is, for the moment, remaining tight-lipped. "They've implied you might see graphical ads," he says. "But the timing and what that would look like remains unclear."
Search designers aren't making changes without prior study and analysis. Laura Kern, the group program manager for user experience for Microsoft's search products, acknowledges that folding new features into the search results page without upsetting users' expectations—and potentially driving them away from the site—is a delicate operation.
During 12 months of testing of the company's new design, Kern's team of engineers tested a prototype layout which indented the most relevant results on the page. Users promptly ignored the indented text, which didn't jibe with a traditional results-page layout. "By moving content 12 pixels," says Kern of the miniscule change back, "we improved click-through rates by 30%."
All in One Place
Still, it's unclear how users will react to more combinations of text and image in their search results. Larry Cornett, Yahoo's vice-president of user experience, says its richer interface is intended to help users avoid "pogo-sticking," or clicking from a results page to another site and then clicking back to find other, more accurate results. According to Cornett, only 15% of search users in the U.S. typically find what they're looking for on the first attempt, often performing three or four searches before they do.
Blended results, which in Yahoo's case pull content from its other Web properties like Flickr and social calendar site Upcoming, can help avoid multiple searches, he says, by providing in one place content that would otherwise be spread across multiple pages.
Ask's has perhaps been the most radical redesign, moving away from the established look of search results. Its 3D look remixes a traditional results page by separating content into three distinct sections, one on the left for related queries, a center area for results, and a right-hand bin for additional content such as images and films, dictionary definitions, or local listings.
Retraining the Eyeballs
Daniel Read, Ask's vice-president of user experience, claims users have taken a shine to the new, quirky design. Internally produced "heat maps," digital prints by which Ask monitors where users' eyes are focused, show that searchers have adjusted their focus from the top right hand side of the screen to the center of the page where then new results now reside.
"We wanted to ask, can you break the traditional paradigm of search interface," says Daniel. "These maps show you can." Read adds that reaction to the design helped Ask's scores on the University of Michigan American Customer Satisfaction Index, a leading quarterly survey of consumer satisfaction, jump 5.6% from 71 in 2006 to 75 in 2007. It was the highest percent increase in customer satisfaction of any online company.
As users fire up newly minted and redesigned search interfaces, Google's brand power remains. Its entrenchment as the go-to search engine of choice remains hard to counter. "There's a lot of loyalty and identification there," says Sterling. Still, Google's current conservatism—with the most to lose, its design has changed the least—could create an opening for smaller outfits willing to take a chance on more graphically rich interfaces that just might wow and win over new users.