Is Google Moving In The Wrong Direction?

December 11, 2009
By Lisa Barone in SEO

It’s been one hell of a week for all of us. I’m exhausted and I need a nap. I do have a question, though. And it is only a question, so simma down, Internet.

The question is this: Is Google making search too complex and moving in the wrong direction with things like default personalization and real-time updates? Or, is it simply keeping itself one step ahead of users and their needs? I think it’s a fine line.

I thought maybe we’d look at a few things.

The Simple, Intuitive Google

Google’s cycled through a few mission statements over the years. First we had the “don’t be evil” mantra that was doomed to fail from the start (business is evil). Then Google was going to “organize the world’s information”. It sounded good but it got kind of muddled. For me, through it all, Google was about ease of use.

  • It was easier to find what you were looking for on Google because the algorithm was better.
  • It was easier to search because the interface was simpler and more scaled down (as opposed to, say, Yahoo).
  • It was easier to be a business owner because Google had these free products that kicked ass.

Google was about taking the strain off doing whatever it was you wanted to do. That’s what I liked.

Back in October, Vice President of Technology for Core Search Udi Manber was interviewed by Business Week and discussed how search is about people, not just data. The interview focused on how Google was improving search for users, the methods they would employ to do that and how search has changed over the past 20 years. It was actually a pretty revealing interview. Here’s a question I lifted. [Emphasis mine]

Q: How important is the user interface for search today vs. a few years ago?
…One conflict I run against is that people want simplicity. But to have really powerful interfaces, you have to have some complexity. So how do you introduce complexity in such a way that you don’t keep people out of that? It has to be optional. And it has to be something you run into slowly or can get it intuitively.

That pretty much nailed it for me. To be successful, your interface has to be simple, it must be intuitive, and when it’s not you have to give people an easy way to get out.

Google Goes on the Announcement Warpath

We’ve seen a lot of announcements from Google over the past seven days. The ones that most caught my eye are listed below:

  • Personalized Search: Last Friday Google made personalized search for everyone. It’s now the default whether you’re logged in or not. Danny Sullivan did a knock out job stressing why this change was so important.]
  • Real-time Search: Google released its announcement about real-time search — the new development that would answer the “what’s going on right NOW?” question. Rae went over why this actually sucks. And may help pedophiles.
  • Internet Privacy: Google CEO Eric Schmidt released his stance on Internet privacy. It goes as follows: “If you have something you don’t want anyone to know, maybe you shouldn’t be doing it.” Sweet.
  • Mobile Search: We were given mobile search for a new era, Google Goggles (which sounds like what happens when you fall in love with a conference speaker), and info on how they may use QR barcodes as part of Google Favorite Places.

With the exception of mobile, none of these new additions are simple. None of them allow me to easily opt out. They’re all in my face and they’re not intuitive. As a searcher, they give me more to worry about and to consider. Not less.

So…the question

As search gets more complicated, as I trust the information they’re giving me less – are we going backwards?

It feels a little like we are. Over at Search Engine Land yesterday, Danny commented that Google’s “instant add” feature was effectively going back to the InfoSeek days of 1997. Instead of figuring out a way to make real-time search valuable, they just threw the whole mess into the search results and left it for us to figure out.

I want a simpler Google. Today’s Google isn’t better. It’s an example of Web design hell. [I love you, Matt Inman]

Give people options. Give them lots and lots of options – but let them get out of those options. As Udi stated backed in October, complexity needs to be optional.

Personalized search should be an option. Search has not been made simpler because the sites I prefer are ranking closer to the top. It just makes search more biased. Can you opt out? Yes. But if the majority of searchers can’t define a browser, they won’t even realize something’s changed. Ignorance doesn’t equal a good experience. Also, in case you forgot Google sucks at intent. Google also sucks at not associating kids and adult behavior. I’d rather them be as hands off as possible with my results.

Real-time search is a great option for people who want an unfiltered window into the mind of the Internet. I’m not one of those people and right now it’s a mess that does nothing but put a live feed of rotating crap blogs, news and Twitter updates directly in my face. Why do it? In the same interview linked to above, Udi says that if you want to follow someone on Twitter, you should follow them on Twitter. They don’t need to bring that into the SERPs. He’s right. So stop.  Until you find a way to make real-time search useful, don’t force it on me.

There’s a point where throwing stuff out to see what “sticks” is a great way to test things and see what users respond to. There’s also a point where you throw so much in their face that the complexity scares them away or turns them off. For me Google’s walking that line.  Do I have any interest in a SERP that “pops” with rotating information and flashy scrolls? No. I really don’t. Are you adding the midis next? I want a search that’s simple, one that’s intuitive and a userface that makes things easier. Google used to be that.

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