Every day, 268 million people use Google Inc. tools to search for something. The query goes in, the company’s software delivers back the most relevant links.
The interaction is so simple -- and the hidden calculation behind the results so complex -- that people tend not to notice much about the process. Who bothers to ask the ingredients of a magic formula?
Google engineers and designers do. Since Google’s 1998 debut, the search results page -- where a query is returned with 10 suggested links on the left and multiple “Sponsored Links” on the right -- has been through seven redesigns.
On May 5, Google unveiled its eighth iteration, Bloomberg Businessweek reported in its May 10 issue. In an interview, Marissa Mayer, Google’s vice president of search products and user experience, called this version “particularly large and particularly important.”
Users now get results with an extra column of tools to drill deeper into information. A query can be quickly refined to show only results from shopping sites, say, or just videos on a topic, or the latest news results. With a new logo and a splash of colorful icons on the left side of the page to guide users through the new options, the look is noticeably different and surfaces tools that had previously been buried deep within Google’s “advanced search.”
Given that the shift of a single pixel can impact Google’s profits, why would the company ever mess with the most successful formula in the history of the Internet? “The Web is always changing, evolving and innovating,” Mayer said. “It’s important for even sites that people use every day and are very familiar with, like Google, to update their look.”
It’s not just the look that’s been updated. Microsoft Corp.’s Bing and social media sites Facebook Inc. and Twitter Inc. have made a case that Google’s search, based on relevance-ranking, is outmoded, and that the future lies in an integration of relevance with real-time search.
In December, Google conceded the point, announcing that it would begin indexing the Web in real time to help users organize the cacophony emanating from social media.
Some people question the wisdom of introducing complexity to the results pages. “People don’t want to use a search engine,” said Jakob Nielsen, a Web usability expert and principal of the Norman Nielsen Group, which helps companies make products more user-friendly. “They want to get away from a search engine. That’s the reason the advertising works so well - - the search engine is one site they want to get away from so they might go to an advertiser.”
Bing’s New Design
In other words, Google has thrived precisely because it hasn’t tried to envelop its users in a full-frills experience.
Still, as the competitive landscape changes, Google can’t be complacent. Facebook recently edged out Google as the most visited website in the U.S. Microsoft unveiled new plans for Bing, which comes in a distant third in the battle for eyeballs.
In March, Bing rolled out a new design that adjusts the user interface according to the type of search being conducted. If it’s clear a user is looking to buy a plane ticket, Bing morphs into a travel engine. “It’s a very radical departure from the dominant paradigm of the link-based system on the Web,” said Stefan Weitz, director of Bing. “You want to book a flight or track a flight, why display a bunch of links? That’s illogical.”
As Google ironed out bugs and prepared for the release of the redesign in March, it gave Bloomberg Businessweek access to the core, 16-person team.
The atmosphere was loose, though the pressure of the job -- to engage the new decentralized, socialized Web while still driving users to advertisers paying the bills -- was, for most people, top of mind.
“There’s a lot of weight associated with the project,” said product manager Nundu Janakiram, who acted as the point person between engineering, design and the five other departments involved. “Everyone feels invested in the search engine.”
Every Google page has to work seamlessly on countless different computer makes, connection speeds, browsers and screen sizes. It must also foster searching and clicking as fast as possible. Just thinking about the technical requirements can drive designers mad. So when the design team assigned to Search Results V7 first gathered in the summer of 2009 in a small room at Google’s Mountain View, California, headquarters they decided not to think about the requirements at all.
Moving Things Around
Janakiram, a 24-year-old Stanford University grad, Web designer Jon Wiley, a 34-year-old ex-stand-up comic, and two visual designers mocked up hundreds of different results pages that turned everything users know about Google inside out. “Anything we could move around, we moved around,” Janakiram said.
Navigation tools were switched from the left to the right side of the screen. Colors changed from Google’s muted blue to variations with Crayola-like vibrancy. Link styles got tweaked and modules were inverted. One proposal crammed every pixel on the page with information. Another added display advertising.
The wild-ideas phase was a good mind-clearing exercise. Yet when time came for designers and engineers to move into a larger space together and get serious about the new look, the exigencies of producing one of the Web’s most profitable pages took precedence.
“We tend to focus on an evolutionary model where you can bring users along with you, versus dropping them into some completely radical experience,” said Wiley, who ran the Web operation for Texas Governor Rick Perry before joining Google in November 2006.
Engineers and Designers
The engineers view themselves as enablers rather than wet blankets. “Sometimes a designer will tell you what they want, and you’ll tell them you can give them 90 percent of that with a quarter of the work,” said Nate Gaylinn, the technical lead on the project. “If it’s really worth it to have the right experience then you have to put in the extra work. But if it’s a minor detail that you can argue either way, we’ll take the easier route.”
Most of those details are hashed out at a “stand-up” meeting, held daily at 4:07 p.m. Google co-founder Sergey Brin once estimated that it took seven minutes to walk across the Google campus; it’s now company tradition that meetings end on the hour and new ones start seven minutes later.
Everyone working on the project gathers, standing-up to make sure no one gets too comfortable and no time is wasted during the rapid-fire updates. Janakiram, balancing a keyboard on the back of his chair, takes notes throughout. “The whole concept of the stand-up is to talk through what everyone’s doing,” Gaylinn said.
Every proposed feature is put through a review conducted by members of the larger search team, who work in a different area of the building and police changes to make sure they won’t have an unfavorable impact on the larger search engine infrastructure.
“They’re making sure we don’t screw up,” Gaylinn said. By October 2009, the team had its first functional prototype ready for a process it calls dogfooding, which gives each of Google’s 20,000 employees a chance to opt-in to test a new product.
The internal focus group members can log bugs or simply comment on the design. Google won’t say how many staffers took part, nor will it release the text of any comments. At the peak, though, the team received a piece of feedback every 10 seconds, Janakiram said.
Not all of the responses were kind. According to Janakiram, even Google employees will send a message to let designers know they think their work is simply terrible.
One immediate focus of the feedback was the search button, which the designers had turned blue from its traditional gray. “We got a lot of people telling us they found the button distracting, or they usually hit enter to search or their gaze was going to the box, not the results,” Janakiram said. In the end, the box reverted to gray.
In addition to dogfooding, Google researchers ran 19 test subjects through sessions that monitor responses to various aspects of the new design.
The company used a procedure known as eye tracking, which uses cameras built into computer screens to analyze where someone browsing a Web page is actually looking. The most common browsing technique is the “F-pattern,” which shows that users often read Web pages as two lines across followed by a vertical stripe down the screen.
During eye tracking, engineers and designers sat in an adjoining room and gawked through a two-way mirror while users tried out various incarnations of the new search results page.
Each participant was given prescribed terms so that the Google team could see the page in action and under strict controls. When users got distracted -- as they did by the same blue search button that so rankled the dogfooders -- or failed to grasp how they were meant to use the page, it was time to scrap an idea.
In other instances, eye-tracking data helped designers choose between options. While the engineers and designers pored over eye-tracking results, Google statisticians conducted months-long experiments with hundreds of thousands of live users. One of the benefits of having hundreds of millions of users a day is that you can roll out new products to a fraction of them and still reap the benefits of a large sample size.
Google wants more searches and more clicks on its Sponsored Links, and anything that slows the process or inhibits users from clicking can diminish profit.
Google rose $3.39 to $509.76 at 4 p.m. New York time in Nasdaq Stock Market trading. The shares have dropped 18 percent this year.
Toward the end of the redesign, the statisticians focused on the slightly expanded gap between the Google search box and the first result.
“No human being will notice they spend on average 10 milliseconds longer to click on a search result,” said software engineer Patrick Riley. “But if all users take 10 extra milliseconds, we need to be concerned.”
The focus on performance metrics is deeply ingrained in Google’s culture. Engineers Sergey Brin and fellow co-founder Larry Page have consistently expressed their belief that form must always follow function. Page has gone so far as to wonder why the homepage needs anything except an empty search box.
That doesn’t mean designers have to like it.
Shades of Blue
Douglas Bowman, Google’s first visual designer, left the company in March 2009. In a subsequent post on stopdesign.com, Bowman essayed that at Google, data “becomes a crutch for every decision, paralyzing the company and preventing it from making any daring design decisions.” He noted that one project was delayed when a team couldn’t decide between two blues -- so they tested 41 different shades between the two.
“I had a recent debate over whether a border should be 3, 4 or 5 pixels wide, and was asked to prove my case,” wrote Bowman, who is now the creative director at microblogging site Twitter.
Jeffrey Veen, who joined Google as design director in 2006, said design is framed by the fact that “the designers I worked with were fantastic but very formally trained in human computer interaction rather than having” master’s degrees in fine arts.
Mayer doesn’t buy it. “We’re not curtailing instinct at all,” she said. “We need that to fuel the innovation engine that yields great designs from Google. What we can do is use the power of the Internet and the measurability of it to figure out in a scientific way if something is a good idea or not.”
In the days leading up to the rollout, changes continued. Some were major, and caused the launch date to slip five times. A plan to include a widget underneath the search query box so that users could tailor results to their location was dropped after engineers decided the technology didn’t perform consistently enough.
A feature offering users a way to look for similar types of results was renamed from “Not Entirely Unlike” (an oblique homage to sci-fi author Douglas Adams) to the less whimsical, more intuitive “Something Different.”
Even as the search results redesign was being unveiled to the world via a blog post penned by Mayer, the team continued working. For the engineers, launch is the most critical and nerve-racking time.
“We’ll definitely be biting our fingernails,” Gaylinn said. “You can’t just turn this on with a switch.”
As the team breaks up and moves onto different tasks, changes will continue. “In many ways the project never really completely ends,” Janakiram said. “There are always improvements to be made.”