Is Google Moving In The Wrong Direction?


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:

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

outspoken2As 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.

Your Comments

  • Virginia Nussey

    I think Google might realize that things are getting crazy complicated over there. But they’ve developed an ingenious solution: the fade-in home page!

    “People really seem to like that ‘simple’ stuff. We don’t do simple anymore. Oh, I know! Let’s just hide it all on the home page!”


  • Ian

    I get the sense that Google’s finally growing up into the same corporate groupthink stupidity that hurt Yahoo!, continues to make Microsoft a laughingstock and generates all the snarky posts we SEOs tend to write…

    • Lisa Barone

      See and I tried REALLY hard to make this NOT sound snarky! :)

      I hope that’s not what’s happening…but hearing Eric Schmidt’s comments on Internet privacy it was like…jesus….you really do think you rule the world, don’t you?

      • Ian

        It only sounded snarky through my Constant Jewish Annoyance Filter (CJAF).

        But yeah, Google’s becoming the best interface 1997 had to offer, and they’re definitely positioning themselves to extend way beyond search. Which feels a lot like Microsoft trying to extend themselves INTO search.

    • Jaamit

      I think that’s exactly what’s happening Ian. And lets face it, it was inevitable really. A company is ‘meant’ to keep growing bigger and bigger. If you make a billion one year and then the same next year its seen as a failure. This logic of eternal hunger for increasing profits is what ultimately kills the romantic ideals of a startup – we see it happening all the time. The question is who or what will step into the breach as google’s cracks widen, and when, not if this will happen. Hmm is that too ‘The End Is Nigh’ bearded crazy man with a sandwich board?

      • Ian

        The good news is that someone WILL step in. If this ends up hurting Google – that’s a big IF. The world’s never seen a media giant like this before, and Google did it so quietly that they might be able to surf through any problems they create for themselves and keep right on going.

        I am not in the ‘Google is evil’ camp. They’re a company like any other. But they’ve got really smart people who haven’t hit the wall yet. We’ll see what happens when they do.

  • Andrew Nattan

    It’s very much a “New Coke” sort of situation. The more that Google tells me I want NEW AND IMPROVED real time search, shopping results, Google images results, personalised results – so on ad nauseum, the more I just want Google classic. A clean page with the ten most relevant results to the search query that I made.

    Is that too much to ask?

    • Lisa Barone

      AMEN! [passes you the Pepsi]

      They’re great “options” for people, but I think they should be just that, options. I’m all for universal search – giving me a taste of everything, but that feels different than a forced personalization or a real-time search that literally does nothing but fill my SERP with bullshit. There’s a reason I don’t follow the entire world on Twitter.

  • Braden

    Nice take on the sitcho. Currently pondering whether to try and engage real time search as a viable marketing tactic, testing ground, or not at all. Will take these thoughts into account for sure.


  • Jim

    (Probably stupid) Question about the Personalized Search…

    Don’t you have to be logged in to have it personalize the search for you? So in essence, can’t you opt out by signing out?

    Besides gmail and google apps users, are there a lot of people that sign in to google to search?

    • Lisa Barone

      They’re actually personalizing results whether you’re logged in or not. Which makes personalization the new default for everyone.

      • eric

        man you guys make some really thoughtful posts, Lisa. to answer the perosn’s queston: there is a way
        to opt out of personalization, but it’s a pain in the a$$. if you append &pws=0 or &pwst=0 to the end
        of the search query string,, you get de-personalized results (that is, according to aaron wall).
        but i’ve tried it and I think it does sti,, work. can anyone confirm that?
        If it does, let me know, and we’ll buid a little search filter app that will automatically append this and share it with the
        OutSpoken Media community.

  • Kristine Schachinger

    Thanks for the great post Lisa. I feel the same way about – well everything – you wrote here. I think Google should stop trying to keep up w the Joneses and just go back to being a good product.

    Sadly I have been having to rethink Google with all these poor changes and data grabbing… hate when I have to do that *wink

    BTW Just to throw it out there… personalized search – since about 90% of users never go past the homepage weren’t they already getting what they (think) they wanted anyway? What help is ps then? I’m Just Sayin.. ;P

  • Patrick Boegel

    The problem with being a publically traded company is that you often seek to answer to your shareholders first, not your users.

    I have yet to see the value of anything that Google has done beyond basic search and AdWords. I think they can and will succeed in the mobile space, more so from a search and mobile ads space than Android which is while interesting has a ways to go to prove itself.

    As for real time search, they would have been better off sub-contracting the AdWords methodology and backend to Twitter & Facebook among others and shared the profits and be done with it.

  • Roger Sikes

    Rae, you’re spot on with your last couple of posts.

    Even though these last few announcements were most likely researched and carefully rolled out by Google, it’s hard not to get the feeling that they just took a big dump on the quality of results they deliver for the sake of being the first to integrate such things into their SERPs.

    There’s definitely times when it’s useful to witness “buzz” as it happens, but generally that applies to breaking news. I’m totally fine with tabs, but cramming all this stuff (local, news, real time, images, video) into one page is crowding and complicating search results.

    The whole idea behind an algorithm is to provide the BEST results. The perfect algorithm would read your intent, preferences, and deliver you one result, because that is all you would need. Of course that will never happen, but I’d rather see the 10 best results, not the 2-3 best results from different types of sources.

    I think Google is becoming far too complex for the casual user, and most of the tools don’t apply to what a lot of people are going to use it for anyway. As someone mentioned the other day, it seems like Google is going into startup killing mode, basically recreating whatever they see emerging. Instead of original ideas, they’ll just squash the little guys.

    Keep It Simple, Stupid. Such a great rule. Google seems to have forgotten it.

    My random rant is over. Thank you for scrolling past it. ;)

  • Michael D

    I love the “New Coke” analogy. We’ve seen this with so many software products/services over the years. You love them for their simplicity and ease of use, but year after year, revision after revision, they morph into something bloated and complex.

  • Roger Sikes

    Oh crap. LISA – Great post, and Rae had a great post on the real time spam.

    I need my eyes checked. :)

  • Melissa - SEO Aware

    Lisa, I love you even more…Fantastic article!

  • Braden

    Why not just add real time results into the options sidebar? Like they did with the kinda-cool-but-rarely-used ‘wonder wheel’? Make users and Udis happy.

  • Alan Bleiweiss

    Even before the live streaming, I blogged last month about how Google’s home page is now on crack.

    At the same time though, I think Google did an outstanding job in the organic results where they index and give high authority value to your “twitter’s my whore” tweet. That was a stellar action on Google’s part!

  • Danny Sullivan

    I’ll have what she’s having.

    • Ross Monaghan

      Amen! I could not agree with you more. Google’s USP is about simplicity and the SERPS are becoming a carnival ride. Stop with the fad rubbish and improve what you do best. Well written!!

  • Bill Hartzer

    Google is going in the wrong direction, especially with pulling in the latest data from Twitter. Many schools do not allow access to social media sites, but yet now kids can get data from the social media sites through Google? Google has been the default search engine in schools for a while now. And yet we may now see schools switching search engines.

    And if kids use Bing in school, which search engine will they be using at home?

    • Lisa Barone

      And if kids use Bing in school, which search engine will they be using at home?

      Smart. If Google forces schools to change over because they can’t control what’s showing up in search results…hello Bing at school and in the home.

  • greg

    I had this same thought a few days ago – .. I’m glad to see that I’m not the only one feeling this way. Google Bloatware. Thanks for the write-up!

  • CopperBot

    Fantastic article (and fantastic article about RT spam yesterday Rae) Schmidt’s comments have given me serious pause… I’d like to quote a good friend of mine in response. These words are not my own but they summarize my feelings about this much better than I could have on my own.

    “Privacy protects us from abuses by those in power, even if we’re doing nothing wrong at the time of surveillance.

    We do nothing wrong when we make love or go to the bathroom. We are not deliberately hiding anything when we seek out private places for reflection or conversation. We keep private journals, sing in the privacy of the shower, and write letters to secret lovers and then burn them. Privacy is a basic human need.


    For if we are observed in all matters, we are constantly under threat of correction, judgment, criticism, even plagiarism of our own uniqueness. We become children, fettered under watchful eyes, constantly fearful that — either now or in the uncertain future — patterns we leave behind will be brought back to implicate us, by whatever authority has now become focused upon our once-private and innocent acts. We lose our individuality, because everything we do is observable and recordable.


    This is the loss of freedom we face when our privacy is taken from us. This is life in former East Germany, or life in Saddam Hussein’s Iraq. And it’s our future as we allow an ever-intrusive eye into our personal, private lives.

    Too many wrongly characterize the debate as “security versus privacy.” The real choice is liberty versus control. Tyranny, whether it arises under threat of foreign physical attack or under constant domestic authoritative scrutiny, is still tyranny. Liberty requires security without intrusion, security plus privacy. Widespread police surveillance is the very definition of a police state. And that’s why we should champion privacy even when we have nothing to hide.”

  • Gene Daly

    I hate to be a conspiracy buff, but I agree with Danny S that it sure seems like Google deliberately buried the announcement on personalized search by releasing the news in the dead zone of a Friday afternoon… coupled with a dizzying release of new stuff the following week. Trying to avoid any backlash on privacy issues by not alerting the general public about how closely G tracks online behavior?

    • Lisa Barone

      i think there’s a lot of merit to that. They threw out the personalized search stuff and then went into overdrive throwing more stuff at us than we could even process. Most people are still lost in it and really important implications have been glossed over.

  • Scott

    Just want to add my voice to say, “Me too, Lisa!” I agree!

    And excellent observations in the comments, as well. But, whereas new Coke could go away, can new search go back?

  • Geordie

    It seems to me that this cluster of releases was all designed to create a diversion that allowed Google to slip in what they really wanted to do: use their persistent cookies to track you when you’re not logged into a Google account.

    It seems to have worked. Google can now build out a bigger profile of users’ aggregate behavior without their explicit or implicit permission. The fade-in home page that disguises your logged-in/out status works very well for this as well.

    They can always back off the realtime features etc, and go back to a simpler layout, but I guarantee you what will never roll back now that it’s slipped through is “personalized” search aka. all your habits belong to them.

    Eric Schmidt uses your privacy as toilet paper, as well he should apparently since you’re the one at fault for “doing anything you don’t want Google to know about”.

  • Gabriella

    Funny how Google continues to march to it’s own drum * I can hear it now*. I call it “Opt-out” lol. I was just thinking about this a few days ago, and wrote a piece on our blog… Again, way to go Google. With all the stuff Google is coming out with to stay at the head of the competition (Real Time, Personalized Search, Google Wave, Chrome, etc…), it’s starting to seem like they’re just pushing out ideas without really thinking about them.

    Maybe, just maybe, it’s time for the guys at Google to take a well-deserved, much-needed break. Then again, maybe they feel they don’t have to think about any ramifications; they are, after all, the big daddy search engine.

  • Todd Mintz

    I’m not sure this discussion is much different from any of the other discussions we’ve had since Google evolved away from the original “10 Blue Links”. Perhaps they haven’t gotten all the kinks out of the process but they have a pretty good track record of refining whatever process they put forth and I think it’s pretty likely that the same will occur here.

    Schmidt’s comment was stupid but I don’t think media interviews are his forte and I really can’t read anything much into it.

    I have a feeling that everyone reading this blog will not only adjust quite nicely to the new reality but profit well from it :.)

  • NaijaWebGeek

    Lisa, you know I never thought about this – I guess I was carried away! Nice post and straight on comments. Google should read this!

  • jaamit

    Very well put Lisa. This is something a lot of us in search have been thinking and discussing more and more lately. Aaron Wall talked about Google pushing their own properties and verticals driven by the hunger to keep increasing that profit margin, and Alan Bleiweiss has talked about SERPs on Crack. And a couple months back a bunch of UK SEOs had a really (I think) interesting discussion about the future of Google, relating to the continuing problems with geolocation within the SERPs in the UK on the one hand, while rolling out new front end features on the other…

  • SEO Mofo

    Is it just me…or does anyone else see how entirely useless Twitter results in Google are? I mean honestly…I just cannot imagine ANYONE thinking this feature is useful. I look at the pile of shit Google’s interface has become, and it makes me want to host a company-wide meeting for Google…and have Christian Bale deliver the keynote speech:

    What. The fuck. Are you. DOING?!

  • Paul Short

    I just did a search on Google and as of 9:30pm AST (8:30pm Eastern) twitter real time results are no longer showing. I’m in Eastern Canada and someone from the U.K. confirms no Twitter gizmo thingy on their side of the pond. Could be temporary, or they could be listening to users.

    • Paul Short

      Looks like the real-time Twitter search results are showing for different things now. For instance, a search for “rotten meat” does not show the Twitter gizmo, but a search for “Lisa Barone” does.

      Totally speculating here, but is Google testing out only showing real-time Twitter results on terms it thinks are hot right now?

      And yes, I just replied to myself.

  • Nathan Hangen

    I don’t really know how I feel about it, but I know that I spend a lot less time on search and a lot more time asking people on Twitter or Facebook.

  • anshul

    new features provided by google are simply great and dead useful.

  • holden pa

    real time search is an option, you have to click more options then click just now

    Please do your research.

  • Christy

    Does the ‘private browsing’ feature in Firefox eliminate the Google cookie issue?

  • Data Entry Services

    Totally agree Lisa. How do I quantify my SEO efforts if I only get results personalized for me. I can’t even figure out how to UN-PERSONALIZE the results so I know the general public won’t.

  • UK SEO Mark Rushworth

    I wish Google had decided to keep the organic search minimal as search back in 2003 was brilliant!

    Like you suggest, i think personalised search should be optional, but i’d go a step further and suggest that all ‘value added’ features such as froogle/base, images and video results should be optional too. I’d also like to work properly distinguishing between global and search results based on the radio button… its there, so why not use it correctly?

  • Jim Rudnick

    Totally agree with you on the ‘direction’ that Google seems to be leading us all in….and I so agree too with the comment from Udi that the changes need to be optional….and from what I see in the past week, they’re not so optional especially the Real Time functionality! THAT needs to be addressed, eh!


  • argone

    Well, here is something to think about as far as Google and its strategies
    and principles go:

  • Andy

    Google is becoming Skynet. (Not an original statement by any means, but it has merit.)

  • Rifki

    I like this Lisa, thanks for a great post. I have to agree that lately Google has gone a bit over the top by cramming so much into its search page. It feels like the real time search feature was hastily implemented just to keep in with Twitter, and without much thought for its real usefulness. Google is trying to be all things to all people which is never a good idea.


  • Helen Silverwood

    I don’t know really, there could be advantages to the twitter feed if people are looking for up to date info, and it’s quite sensible google including twitter rather than trying to lead people away from it. The personalized search can be switched off, as informed by this article. I’ve been wondering why google results are still different on different computers even when both computers have had their web history deleted, so thanks for that, it’s v useful! Google will continue to evolve for sure, so any disadvantage the present state of affairs has for some people will keep changing anatway no doubt.

  • danielson

    google tends to make things super complicated. twitter is not needed in search results

  • [Anchor Text Removed]

    They’re managing all our data.

    You do understand that most SERP are catered to the searcher.MyGoogle actually tracks your searches to help give you more relevant results.

    So not only do they have your search data, they also have your email, your photos (picasa), your social networking (me), your content (reader)…infact they may know more about you than your closest friends…ISNT THAT SCARY!?

  • konteyner

    The personalized search can be switched off, as informed by this article. I’ve been wondering why google results are still different on different computers even when both computers have had their web history deleted, so thanks for that, it’s v useful! Google will continue to evolve for sure, so any disadvantage the present state of affairs has for some people will keep changing anatway no doubt.

  • Helen Silverwood

    I’m surprised to see my comment from above copied here word for word, even including the typing error! Thanks for the compliment but what’s going on here? Panic-stricken black hat link-building in the face of Google Personalized Search?!

  • Sarah Patrick

    I curious to see how Blekko does. All of the articles I have read seem to point to a failure due to not being able to overcome the Google brand. But, at some point Google will just go too far in what they are trying to do.

  • cheamo

    I absolutely agree. The reason most people I know started using Google over any other search engine back in the early 90’s was mostly because of it’s very simple interface. It’s also why it became so many people’s home page back then. Now Google keeps forcing these extra “features” down our throats when all I want is still just a simple design where I type in a search key and an excellent algorithm returns a simple lists of results.

    I really think if Google keeps going in this direction someone will build a free search engine that is just as good, but is completely simple, and people will slowly start switching to it.

  • Moda 2011

    google tends to make things super complicated. twitter is not needed in search results

  • Cilt Maskeleri

    I don’t really know how I feel about it, but I know that I spend a lot less time on search and a lot more time asking people on Twitter or Facebook.

  • Jeff Vojtko

    I think with Google’s latest push (Panda) they are definitely going in the wrong direction. Why can they just be happy enough making billions of dollars. No, Google wants to control the whole Internet. A lot of people lost out because of Google.