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Google Recipes! Google Careers! Google Confusion! The UI Madness Continues

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Item 3 on my 25 Things I Hate About Google list was "Stop confusing people. Pick a user interface and go with it!" The past few days only prove my point, as I've seen everything from Google Recipes to Google Careers being reported as new features while others play with their cookies in order to get a green bar vertical search implementation.

Look, it's Google Real Estate!

Actually, it's just results from Google Base that are now flowing into the regular results through a OneBox display. Google said when Google Base launched that results would get integrated into regular Google.

Look, it's Google Recipes!

Look, it's Google Careers!

Nope, once again, it's just Google Base results flowing into the regular results. It's the same thing as with the real estate listing integration above, but it's confusing to those who come across these listings because Google's not given any heads-up about the new implementation.

Here's the Official Google Base Blog. See any mentions? Nada. Would it be so hard to explain that Google is more heavily testing integrating Google Base results into regular Google for randomly selected searchers? How about throwing up a few screenshots to illustrate it? Maybe put an experimental feature on Google Labs letting anyone who wants this to try it.

Nah, that would be too easy. Instead, let's just have people get all confused about what the hell is going on.

It could be this is part of a grand Google master plan. The beta strategy already works well for that double-dip of publicity. Put the product out in beta, gather up the glory, then release it from beta for that second dose of write-ups. Perhaps these non-disclosed alpha experiments are a way to triple team the coverage. Get the buzz going as a select few see these experiments and blog about them. Then do a beta. Then a final. Then move into Redmond and take over Microsoft and....

Personally, I think it's just lameness rather than a clever business strategy. Google's long tested new features by showing them select groups of people. When I've asked them why they don't disclose this testing more, it's always been a case of not wanting to mess up the "experiment" by skewing the sample.

Googlers, those days are long gone. In a world of bloggers, keeping your experiments quiet are over. For example, take the "news" of Google "new interface," as Ars Technica called it this week. Which new interface would that be? There are so many to choose from.

Honestly, as I said in my 25 Hates piece, I wish I had the time to Photoshop everything we've seen so far into a singular illustration of the Google to come. In the meantime, here's a bulletpoint recap:

  • Middle Of The Page Refinement: This is where Google inserts into the middle of the page results from a related -- yet different -- search than you originally did. Why? It's an experiment at query refinement.

    It seems to have started last August with the results preceded by a "Dissatisfied? See results for:" message. It soon changed to a "See results for" message later than month.

    Today, it continues on, happening for some people but not all of them and still generating plenty of confusion. I know this firsthand, because hardly a week goes by without someone posting in our Search Engine Watch Forums for help/information/confirmation that Google's doing this. We have a standing thread on the topic, created by merging multiple posts over time. Despite that, here's someone posting about it afresh yesterday.

    The feature came under new discussion this month when it suggested results for "ashley cole gay" in response to queries for Ashley Cole, a UK footballer. Google "Ashley Cole Gay" Results Suggestion Prompts Questions From His Solicitor covers more about this.

    What do the Google help pages say about this feature? Nothing. Here's the guide to Google's search results page. This feature doesn't get mentioned there. If you're trying to figure out why this happens (as Ashley Cole's solicitor was), you're stuck with the official comment Google gave me back in August (it's a test) or Google's Matt Cutts explaining a bit more on his personal blog. Suffice to say, an official mention somewhere on Google itself at this point wouldn't be amiss.
     
  • Google Groups/Google Books At Bottom Of Results: In late August, Google seems to have started putting links to Google Groups information at the bottom of the page. I think I sometimes still see that, but since mid-November, Google also puts "Try your search again on Google Book Search" at the bottom of the page.
     
  • Google Base Refinement Keywords: These came up at the beginning of January, links to take you to categories of information from Google Base. Maybe they're still out there. Maybe not. Who knows?
     
  • Google Drop-Down Boxes: Because what didn't work in 1998 ought to be good today. This is also from early January, when Google tested putting a drop-down box for different verticals on its home page.
     
  • Ads At Bottom Of Page: In mid-November, Google tested putting ads at the bottom of its pages. I just had someone ask me about these last week, so I guess for some, that test continues. Information on the Google site about it? Zilch.
     
  • Graphical Ads In Google Local: Hey, it's ads with logos at Google Local this month, following on the earlier experiment with blue pins.
     
  • Green Bar Vertical Search Test: First spotted to my knowledge in December, this is the "new" test that's got everyone buzzing this week. Credit seems to belong to Salvatore Aranzulla, who came across what appears to be a fresh batch of testing. He also explained how by changing your cookie, anyone could see this new implementation. Luca Conti translated the instructions into English from Italian, plus this site did the same, which Download Squad seems to have spotted. In the comments at Download Squad were instructions on how to paste some script into your browser to see the results. That hit Digg, which lead to simpler instructions at Google Blogoscoped and Ars Technica, if you want to see the results yourself. Just remember that you have to disable personalized search results to make them work, if you have those switched on.

And isn't that great? Now Google's got people all over the web possibly screwing up their cookies to see this experiment. It's all probably pretty safe -- if not, I'm sure someone would be screaming security concerns by now. But there's an overriding security concern that it's probably not a great idea that people are pasting JavaScript code into their browsers period. Next time, it could be some adware/spyware thing changing Google's search results (as they have in the past), but people might think it's another super-secret Google experiment and begin merrily hacking away (and getting infected) to see what's up.

Solutions?

  1. Start talking officially about what you're doing. You've got an official blog, freshly restored after you accidentally deleted it. Tell us when you've got these experiments going. That will help those of us who care know that it really is something you are doing. It will also help us all point at something official about it. And no, it won't mess up your experiment. Few typical searchers probably read your blog. You can still experiment with them, though the reality remains, any experiment you do just leaks out as you see now. At the very least, get some more help information up about this stuff.
     
  2. Let people in voluntarily. As I explained, having people come up with hacks to see this stuff is silly and potentially dangerous. Throw these things up on Google Labs as well as letting them into the wild. Let people who voluntarily want to see Google Base results inline or whatever have a way to make that happen. Two pluses here. First, you don't have the potential security issue. Second, you can isolate these people who explicitly want to play with the feature from your "control" group who really are seeing them as part of an experiment.
     
  3. Pick something. What? Half-a-year of testing middle of the page query refinement, and you still don't know if you want to do it? It's absurd. Decide yes or no. If yes, make it a feature that people can override if they want. If no, then at least we can have an end to people remaining confused about what they are seeing.

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