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Searching With Invisible Tabs

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I've got a real scoop, a leaked look at how Google will appear in 2005. Take a peek:

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Doesn't the future of search look great? Whatever type of information you're after, Google and other major search engines will have a tab for it!

I'm joking about the picture above being leaked from Google, of course. In reality, it's an illustration I created and first shared during a keynote presentation at a library conference back in November 2001. At that time, Google had only recently added tabs to its home page. I was trying to show why this tabbed metaphor couldn't last.

Many people looking at the fictional Google home page above would no doubt dismiss it as absurd. That's the point. Having a page covered in tabs is simply unusable. However, without some type of radical change, that's where Google and other search engines are headed.

The solution I see coming is something I call "invisible tabs." Quietly, behind the scenes, search engines will automatically push the correct tab for your query and retrieve specialized search results. This should ultimately prove an improvement over the situation now, where you're handed 10 or 20 matching web pages.

A Plethora Of Tabs

As said, the idea of Google sporting a home page with 40 tabs seems ridiculous. But just look at how things are growing.

When the illustration above was made, Google had only four tabs: Web, Images, Groups and Directory. Google News didn't exist at the time, but it was obvious Google would have to introduce a news service. I guessed correctly that this would be the next tab to appear. It did, in September 2002.

Google could easily add a Shopping tab now, to provide access to its Froogle shopping search engine results. Google's long had a university search and US government search, so the University and Government tabs shown are hardly a stretch. A White Pages tab? You might not realize that Google offers a PhoneBook feature that could be accessible this way.

Google could also add tabs for its Google Answers service, the Google Catalogs service, or topical search coverage it provides for BSD, Apple and Microsoft. All of these are existing specialized search services that Google currently offers.

Sitting in the wings may be a Books tab, if a rumored Google books search service does happen similar to the recently-launched Amazon book search. A Chat tab? Google's been spotted crawling chat areas, making that a possibility. Google's also said this year that a Blog tab will eventually come, though it has denied rumors that this means blog content would be pulled from its web listings.

Let's add them up:

  1. Web
  2. Images
  3. Groups
  4. Directory
  5. News
  6. Shopping
  7. University
  8. Government
  9. PhoneBook
  10. Answers
  11. Catalogs
  12. BSD
  13. Apple
  14. Microsoft
  15. Books
  16. Chat
  17. Blogs

That's 17 tabs, without breaking a sweat. Suddenly, the exaggerated picture I started this piece with of 40 tabs on the home page doesn't seem so unlikely.

Tabs Beyond Google

If Google has the potential for 17 tabs, some of its competitors are not far behind.

For example, Yahoo added four tabs to its home page at the beginning of this month: Web, Images, Yellow Pages and Products. Do a search, and you'll discover that Directory and News tabs also exist on above the results you'll receive.

That's six tabs right there. But check out the "pure" Yahoo Search home page. Yahoo unveiled this earlier in the year but puzzlingly dropped a link to it from the Yahoo.com home page when tabs were added. At the pure search page, you can up the tab count to nine by adding Maps, People Search and Travel.

Yahoo could go even further. The company has content areas such as real estate, auctions, classifieds, email discussion groups, white pages and more. Each content area is potentially a searchable tab.

AOL also recently made some tab news, adding more features that bring the number of specialty searches that can be done via tabs to six. These are the ability to search for web pages, images, audio/video files, shopping results, news, local information and AOL community listings.

Tabs can also be found at Yahoo-owned AltaVista and AllTheWeb, but these aren't new. AltaVista started the tab craze, then dropped them, but today embraces them once again by offering Web, Image, MP3/Audio, Video, Directory and News. AllTheWeb features Web, News, Pictures, Video, Audio and FTP file tabs.

Swiss Army Knife For Search

Don't get me wrong about tabs. I like them, in as much as they represent a particular specialty search that can be performed. Many times, people would be far better off performing a search that taps into a specialized collection of material rather than trying a web search.

For instance, want to know if someone has registered a trademark with the US government? Using the free search service offered by the US Patent & Trademark Office makes more sense to get a definitive answer than trolling through 3 billion web pages. Want to find financial reports from US public companies? The US Securities & Exchange Commission's EDGAR service is an ideal search resource.

Tabs at major search engines effectively represent these type of specialty searches. They are designed to say, "Want images? Use Image Search! Looking for news? Try News Search!"

To some degree, a search engine featuring many tabs is like one of those Swiss Army Knifes with many different "blades." Need a spoon? Don't eat with the knife. Instead, fold out the spoon blade. Need to drive a screw? Use the screwdriver feature.

If all a search engine offers is web search, then it's like a Swiss Army Knife that has only one blade -- a big knife. While you can use that knife to do many things, having the right tool will make life easier.

Invisible Tabs As Solution

So tabs equal the right search tool -- but aside from the logistics of trying to place all your tabs in one place, there's the bigger issue of what I call "tab blindness." Many people simply do not see or use tabs, just like they regularly ignore drop down boxes, radio buttons and any type of other option you put out. Search engines have told me this over the years, and I also see it first hand.

I do classes on web searching on a periodic basis. I always point out the tabs at Google to my students and ask how many have seen them or used them. Most have never noticed them. A few have seen them, but they don't know what they are for, so they haven't used them. You should see the look of astonishment when I demonstrate the ease of finding images by using the image tab, as opposed to using the default web search. The room is illuminated by all the light bulbs going off over each person's head.

The solution to tab blindness is clearly for me and an army of other search educators to head out and teach people how to use tabs! Naturally, that's not going to happen. No, the solution really is for the search engines to make use of "invisible tabs," where they make the correct choice for the user, behind the scenes.

Ask Jeeves provides an excellent example of this concept in action. The company eschews tabs on its home page. Sure, you might notice some options to do picture or product searching down at the bottom of its home page. However, Ask Jeeves doesn't expect you to push these. Instead, it will try to do the right thing behind the scenes, based on your query.

For instance, compare a search for pictures of dna at Google to Ask Jeeves. At Google, without changing any default settings, you end up with 10 matching web pages for your query. At Ask Jeeves, you get images -- actual pictures -- at the top of the results.

That makes sense. After all, you explicitly asked for pictures. It's not rocket science to see your query and decide that it makes sense to push the invisible image tab for you. But the change it produces, and perceived relevance to me, is dramatic.

Try a search for pocket pc at Ask Jeeves. As you can imagine, some people who do this type of search may be interested in buying one. Intelligently, Ask Jeeves shows you some shopping search results in an attractive but not intrusive manner right at the top of the page.

You can also go beyond this. For instance, I've been writing a series about efforts to improve local searching. In my articles, I keep coming back to an example of someone searching for dentists in san francisco. There's a strong likelihood that providing yellow pages matches would make for a better user experience than showing matching web results.

To see this is action, try a search for san francisco dentists on Yahoo by default. You'll get some listings, but there's many intermediaries in between -- third parties offering to lead you to dentists, rather than dentists themselves. Now hit the yellow pages tab. If you're logged in as a registered Yahoo user, you'll get back local yellow page listings that specifically show only actual dentists local to your area. To me, it's a far superior experience.

Searching for hotels is another example where hitting an invisible tab -- and having the right database of information -- can make a world of difference. Search for san francisco hotels at MSN Search. You get a number of online reservation services, rather than actual hotels. Now compare the same search at the Expedia travel service. Suddenly, you have prices, the ability to search by hotel class and even to put your listings on a map.

Beyond Web Pages

Invisible tabs aren't yet commonplace. Ask Jeeves is probably furthest ahead, but even there, web page listings maintain the traditional dominance they've always had. Yes, you do get actual images of DNA in a search for "pictures of dna" at Ask Jeeves. However, the bulk of the page remains web page listings.

Look around, and you'll see more examples of this cautious approach. Search for a hot news topic such as iraq at Google, and you'll usually get two or three headlines at the top of your results. That's nice, but it's easy for users to skip right past the news headlines that are offered and focus on the web page results, even if news material is really the type of information they're after.

When invisible tabs come into play, this domination of web page results will finally, mercifully, end. Instead, a search for iraq at Google and other search engines will likely bring up matching news headlines, with suggestion that you might also want to search the entire web, as well. That will be a far better experience for many searchers.

Similarly, a hotel related search won't just bring a back suggestions about trying Expedia, as it currently does at MSN Search. Instead, perhaps you'll get true travel search engine-style results, with an option to search the web if that's not satisfactory.

Matching web pages results won't go away. They'll always be out there, but over time, we should see them more and more presented as backup for when there aren't good answers from specialized databases.

Invisible Tab Problems

Specialized databases offer much promise for better results, and using invisible tabs will help get more of these results in front of search engine users. However, invisible tabs also pose some real dangers.

For one, if you guess wrong, you'll upset some users. Deliver up shopping search results when someone wants product reviews, and you may lose a potential searcher.

Problems have solutions. Consider someone doing a search that the search engine thinks is shopping related. Instead of delivering actual matches, the search engine might come back with questions, but formatted so they appear like listings:

What would you like to do?
  • Show me prices for this product from merchants across the web
  • Show me product reviews from across the web
  • Show me general matching content from across the web.

Indeed, enter a URL into the search box at Google or AllTheWeb, and you see exactly this type of intelligent conversation happening. The search engine understands you may need something special, and it works with you to get to the right choice by asking questions. Check out these examples for the US White House URL at Google and AllTheWeb to see it in action.

Another danger is the "walled garden," where important content might not be included. A shopping search engine might have only some stores involved, perhaps only those with partnership deals. If the content isn't strong enough, the user may not be satisfied. The same is true for hotel or airline search. Expedia does not carry listings from budget airlines like Southwest or JetBlue, as these airline don't partner with it.

Over-commercialization could also happen. The specialized databases are more likely to involve payment for inclusion. No one wants to feel like every query is only going to be satisfied by those who've paid. Balance and quality will need to be maintained -- and search engines will face entire new challenges when it comes to disclosure, as this recent article about shopping search disclosure points out.

However, commercialization is not necessarily bad. A classic example is that yellow pages, an all-commercial product, have been very useful to people for decades. In some situations, specialized databases where all the data suppliers are known might be better than letting anyone be involved, and risk having a few of those invite try to twist the system to their benefit.

It bears remembering that web search results already have plenty of commercialization in them. Indeed, one of the biggest challenges web search faces is that commercialization is out of control. Google saved the declining relevancy of crawler-based listings by bringing in good link analysis. That kept listings above the tide of spam. But that spam tide is rising, and Google and others have to fight it harder -- and there's only so much you can do. Using paid inclusion as a solution gets you blamed for selling out, while increased filtering gets you webmasters who may feel you're hurting their "right" to free traffic or assuming you are doing paid inclusion behind the scenes.

This is where specialized databases and invisible tabs niches in nicely. As soon as you diversify and remove the giant draw of every search being answered by web results, you take away much of the incentive for some to go to extreme efforts to manipulate your web results. Sure, specialized databases themselves will eventually come under pressure. But at least there's no longer one major "front" in the battle -- and as a search provide, you'll have a better ability to vet and manage these specialized sources.

Search Engine Thoughts

I think search engines will eventually make the full jump into invisible tabs, but what do they say? Here are some comments:

At AOL, the ultimate goal is that searchers shouldn't need to go through efforts or push tabs to get what they want.

"Our philosophy is that members just want to put something in the box and get what they're looking for," Campbell said.

However, knowing exactly what type of results to deliver isn't always easy, and unpredictability can confusing to searchers, AOL said.

"It's really clear in some cases and not in others, said Gerry Campbell, executive director of search and navigation for AOL. "The commitment we have right now is that if you are searching for pictures of dogs, how do we get the teaser into the environment? One of the things we think is that you need to have some consistency. But as technology and ability to go deeper, we'll consider it."

Over at Yahoo, having a magical single box that pushes the right tabs is also seen as a goal.

"Ultimately it's about one search box and the right answer to the query. That's the holy grail. In the intermediate term, we've already made several improvements to better understand user intentions and help users find what they are looking for more effectively, including product search, news, yellow pages, weather, and dictionary shortcuts, a search home page, and search tabs on the Yahoo home page," said Jeff Weiner, senior vice president of search and marketplace.

Added Weiner:

"We are also in a fortunate position to have strong relationships with tens of millions of Yahoo users so that we can better understand their needs and further improve upon the search experience. For Yahoo, having these relationships and the breadth and depth of content in key categories such as local, news, travel and shopping is invaluable to providing a deeper and more relevant search experience, especially when it comes to areas like personalization, customization and specialized category searches."

As mentioned, I view Ask Jeeves as being the most daring with invisible tab use so far. The company's own name for such search behavior is "Smart Search," and Ask Jeeves plans to continue developing it.

"What we've found is that people expect to enter all searches into one box and then have search engines read their minds. That's really hard to do, let alone 100 percent of the time, but we're making strides. Our goal is to create a seamless, intuitive search experience that fuses together the right results, from the right sources, in the right place, at the right time," said Daniel Read, director of product management.

Ask Jeeves acknowledges that making the shift to invisible tabs has to be done carefully and that continuing to offer web search results prominently can act as type of security blanket.

"Regarding the 'cautious approach' to delivering traditional web page listings along with Smart Search, there's good reason from our point of view. Just as it's difficult to train people to search using tabs, it's equally difficult to convince them to completely give up the security blanket of '10 blue links'. We've found that people aren't completely ready to abandon this convention, even when they ask for something like pictures or products and you give it to them. Today, in those instances, it makes sense to deliver both," Read explained.

I also asked MSN and Google for comments for this article. MSN declined. As for Google, they asked for more time to review the article. If I do get comments, I'll add them to this section of the article and let readers know.

I can tell you that when I talked about this issue with Google a few months ago, there was definitely a sense that a single search box had to be made smarter, without forcing the user to make decisions. But Google gave no details as to how they might make that happen.

Future For Search Engine Marketers

As a search engine marketer, the implementation of invisible tabs means that traffic from organic web page listings will diminish over time. The more specialty databases are implemented, the less traffic will fall to web search results.

That needn't be a problem. The skilled search engine marketer's most important asset is understanding how search engines get various types of listings, then helping their clients enter the appropriate databases. Think beyond web page databases, and you'll be prepared for the future.

For instance, if your client is an online merchant, then understanding how shopping search listings are implemented means you'll be well set for when these become a default for some searches. Does your client have news content? Then understanding how news search results are gathered will help you here.

At our end, Search Engine Watch will certainly keep focusing on the important type of specialty search offerings that emerge. And as these become more prominent through invisible tabs, we'll keep you abreast of the changes, to help you succeed in going forward.


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