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Google Steps Gingerly Toward Search As Application

By - May 05, 2010

New Goog Interface.png

When Bing launched, I framed the new service from Microsoft as an important step in the evolution of search:

I actually don’t think Microsoft is trying to out-Google Google with Bing. I think it’s trying to build a different kind of search application, one that sits on top of commodity search and helps people make decisions in a new way. Done right, this totally breaks the AdWords model that has driven search so far. To me, that is a very big step in a new direction, and one that Google cannot afford to make.

Today Google has decided it can’t afford NOT to make this step, at least somewhat. The company has decided to create a left hand nav bar that pushes the service toward search as an app.

Now, when I mentioned that idea in a briefing yesterday, the Google rep I spoke to wasn’t eager to confirm the concept, but to my mind, this is exactly what’s going on. Bing (and Ask before it) has built a service on top of commodity search results, one that does not require you to go back and forth, back and forth, but rather instrument your search session using intelligent, persistent navigation. This is exactly what Google’s new UI lets you do.

The real question, of course, comes down to money. Does this mean fewer clicks on paid ads for Google? I asked that question, and the response was telling: I’m paraphrasing, but in essence Google told me “we’ve found that this new approach increases the chance that users will find the information they are looking for.” And in Google’s parlance, ads are information.

Of course Google would never roll out such a significant UI update without rigorously testing the impact on AdWords clicks, and indeed Google confirmed to me that this is the most tested UI change Google’s ever made. Indeed, the left nav bar has been seen in the wild for several years.Goog Update nav.png

What’s on the bar is worth grokking as well. First, “Web” has been replaced with “Everything.” That’s pretty meta – maybe we should change the name of the Web 2.0 Summit to the Everything 2.0 Summit – but I digress. Second, what is on the bar changes based on your search in real time. And one of the options includes “Updates” – their way of incorporating Facebook, Twitter and other real time data. A “Something Different” link gives you related searches, among many other new or consolidated features on the left nav. A full overview can be found at SEL.

Google told me that the actual underlying results – both organic SERPs as well as the ads that accompany them – have not changed. This is a new skin over Google’s results, not a shift in how those results are determined. That’s important, but not entirely the story.

The story is that this shift will change how we interact with Google, what our search query stream looks like, and therefore, what kind of SERPs and ads will be produced. I am certain Google has modeled this shift, and equally certain the company believes this change will impact their bottom line in a positive way. Of course, the company could be mistaken. Only future quarterly results will prove whether or not Google got it right.

What do you all make of the changes?

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  • http://www.theiphonedevelopers.co.uk/ app developer

    I’ve watched friends and family get very annoyed at what I term Google Overwhelm – summed up for me by ‘if I wanted Google to give me a map I’ve have bloody asked for one’!
    Google should have learnt from Yahoo that just adding more to the page is not a good way keeping people.
    I think Bing is worrying Google and pushing them to making errors.

  • http://www.firstrain.com/ Penny Herscher

    John – absolutely I agree with you. Search as an application is much more useful that simple keyword search. As the web explodes in volume some level of filtering (or “faceting”) makes a huge difference to use productivity. At FirstRain we do this for business users – like sales and marketing people understanding their market – and the benefit is all about time. Time to find what you need, and only what you need. Google has made an important step in that direction.

  • http://www.twitter.com/ransomthoughts Carey

    I agree with how you distinguish the evolution toward an application. Where others have opportunities are around specific search applications. With the proliferation of web content, enabling effective filters & facets around context becomes critical.

    I’d guess that Google knows user behavior has shifted to “search first, then refine” from earlier modes of “search, then scroll” or “ready, aim, fire” and the easier they make that, the more loyalty they’ll retain and monetize. People still want to start at Google.com, not one of their spokes (maps, images, etc), and then want easy access to that content when THEY determine that is the context. Fun to see the evolution.

  • JG

    Of course Google would never roll out such a significant UI update without rigorously testing the impact on AdWords clicks

    John, what you do mean, “of course”? The 5-bell alarm is going off right now. If what you say is true, then that violates every single principle that Google has ever stood for. Why? Because Google has told us for years and years and years that ads are independent of search results. The search results/interface/quality team has nothing to do with the ads team. Look at what Cutts said about this whole matter a few years ago (read the entire thread for completeness, but here is the direct link to the relevant comment):

    http://battellemedia.com/archives/2008/10/when_doesnt_it_pay_to_pay_attention_to_search_quality#comment_134142

    Quote: “I just don’t think about our ads or ads quality on a daily basis; ads is not search quality’s job. The search quality group’s job is to improve our organic search results, period.”

    Now, what you’re saying is that Google didn’t roll out these search quality changes.. until AFTER they made sure that the changes didn’t significantly impact ad clicks?

    I’ve always suspected as much, but is the facade finally breaking down? Has there really been an admission that search and ads are not independent, that Google might actually not make a search UI change that gave a better organic experience.. IF that meant less ad clicks? That is what you are saying, now, isn’t it?

  • http://traffic.de.com Norbert Mayer-Wittmann

    @JG LOL ;D

    @John There’s no place like Everywhere ;D

    See also http://www.theonion.com/video/google-opt-out-feature-lets-users-protect-privacy,14358/

    LMFAO!

    :D nmw

  • http://www.startups.com Linda Rowe

    @JG As a matter of fact, I don’t know what are the principles that you say Google stands for when making reference to the ads. It is basic, the ads will be shown based on your search, based on your interests and that’s the basis of Google ads’ appeal.
    When I first tried asking people with experience about this on the startups website, I was explained different.

  • http://traffic.de.com Norbert Mayer-Wittmann

    @Linda

    Yes, and that’s primarily why the target audience for people who advertise on that site are GooTards (I think John has a nice graphic showing such a “typical” profile ;) …. However, I find it amazing that advertisers would be willing to pay so much money to reach such a naive + unsophisticated demographic.

    BTW: I tried searching for you by name on startups.com, but couldn’t find your profile (I take it you use an “alias” user name)

    :) nmw

  • JG

    @Linda:

    From the Google “10 things” corporate philosophy page, under the “don’t be evil” point, which lays out the relationship between organic results and ads:

    It is a core value for Google that there be no compromising of the integrity of our [organic] results.

    So now, suppose Google is A/B testing two different search interfaces, A and B. System A is is “search as ten links” (traditional web search) system. System B is this new generation of “search as application” with enhanced UI and interaction.

    Suppose furthermore that clickthrough/usage rates in System A is medium for organic results, and medium for advertisements. And suppose that clickthrough/usage in System B is high for organic results, and low for ads. Are you with me so far? Basically, System B increases user satisfaction with organic results, at the expense of ads.

    I submit that if Google then chooses to deploy System A over System B, then they have compromised the integrity of their [organic] search results. Why? Because the search results under System B were actually much better, as measured by usage, than under System A. But by not choosing B, because ad clickthrough was lower, Google has placed the interest of the advertisers above the interest of the users, thus compromising the quality of their organic search system.

    And what John has said is that this is exactly what Google did.. they tested their “application-like” search interface until they came up with one that did not lower ad clickthrough rates. If that is really true, then that shows a willingness for Google to compromise the integrity of their search results.

    On top of that, Google has said:

    “Google’s advertising programs are independent of Google’s search results.”

    http://adwords.google.com/support/aw/bin/answer.py?hl=en&answer=172101

    If now there is a team at Google that is optimizing a System metric in which clickthrough/usage of organic results is NOT measured independently of clickthrough/usage of ads, then that means that Google’s advertising programs are NOT independent of Google’s search results. Why? Because the metric is involved in a feedback loop to the parameters of a ranking algorithm. And if that metric is not independent, then neither are the results, or the interfaces, etc.

    Correct?

  • Trevor

    Google, welcome to the land of the sell outs. For as long as i can remember i have used google because it is a valuable tech tool, making it easy and simple to find exactly what you want, and if you think that this sidebar is a step in the right direction then you have been seriously misguided. I hate bing with a passion because of their fucking sidebar, and im about to change over to it because i hate to see the best search engine there is go and screw themselves over. REMOVE THE SIDEBAR! Everyone who loves google loves it for its simplicity and if you start trying to fix what wast broke then your just killing yourself. Your top bar does exactly what the sidebar does, and doesnt take up my entire screen. The new format looks absolutely terrible and im raging right now and feel like hurling my pc because for the past 3 hours ive been looking for a way to remove it, and you didnt even make that option available! For the love of god…if its not broke dont fix it, PLEASE! I IMPLORE THAT YOU REMOVE THIS SIDEBAR!!!

  • A Reder

    You “framed the new service”? (Bing)

    I think you men you wrote about it. Or described it. Or commented upon it.

    There is no substitute, in good writing, for clarity of expression. Style is not a substitute. Unless clarity is at the heart style becomes fluff. Froth.

  • David Bridge

    A big change is that you no longer have the radio button offering default UK search with google.co.uk.

    You now have to waste time with a general search before you are then offered the uk option in the left hand column.

    Can someone recommend an alternative that I can switch to?

  • Andrew Young

    @Dave Bridge I’m totally with you there.
    I’m in OZ (google.com.au) and have to add + Australia to every search. The link – “Links from Australia” from the left column does not function correctly.

    Just did a search and was given a UK map, USA, UK Canadian information before what I’m looking for from Australia.

    I figure there is an opportunity for some other search to overtake Google here.

    Bing is looking like that at present

  • http://www.clubnetsearchmarketing.co.uk Geoff Jackson

    @David Bridge: You can still select the ‘Pages from the Web/UK’ radio buttons with the Firefox Google search which I simply use rather than Google.co.uk directly.

    Don’t know if this is of any use to you?

    http://www.google.co.uk/firefox?client=firefox-a&rls=org.mozilla:en-US:official

  • http://www.clubnetsearchmarketing.co.uk Geoff Jackson

    Incidentally, since my last comment to David, it appears the radio buttons for Web/UK have been removed from the Firefox Google search now.

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