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Effective Search Engine Design

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A special report from the Search Engine Strategies 2002 Conference, August 12-14, San Jose, CA.

Representatives from Google, Yahoo, and Lycos share insights into how they design for their users, and what users search for when they visit the major web navigation portals.

Google

Marissa Mayer, Software Engineer from Google, started things off by explaining that their major focus is their users. The three main tools they use to design for them are user studies, statistical analysis, and experimentation.

Mayer stated that since 2000, Google has frequently utilized user studies to improve their designs. They consistently run them in-house and always before and after releasing new technology or features. She then provided some examples of what they have learned from their various studies.

While user testing, they found that when people search, they are so "laser focused" on the search results, they do not notice many of the other features of the site. In fact, in one test when asked to describe the search results page the majority of subjects only described the different aspects of the site listings (URL, link, description, etc.), and ignored the fact that the page also has other features such as the search box, search button, and general navigation elements.

Testing also pointed out that people could not find the "Help" link when asked, and that "engineering speak" in their writing made some features of the service difficult for users to understand and use. Both issues were fixed once testing identified them.

Statistical analysis also assists Google with the optimization of their site and services. An example that Mayer gave was that their original spell check tool was not returning accurate results, which they detected in their log files. Once they identified the problem the tool's accuracy was improved and usage by users immediately doubled.

Google also likes to experiment according to Mayer. She mentioned that they once tried placing thumbnail images of sites next to their listings in the search results thinking that a visual aid might help users. What they found was that most people involved in the testing did not like the new images, due to their quality and the fact that they reduced the number of results per page, and turned the option off, so Google dropped the idea.

Yahoo

Scott Gatz, General Manager of Search/Directory at Yahoo, began by mentioning their mission of "being the one place that users can go to find anything or anyone." He then provided some interesting information about how their users tend to interact with the Yahoo site when doing just that.

Yahoo users, not surprisingly, most often use the standard search box at the top of the home page, but they do use other methods. Gatz stated that as users become more web savvy they are turning to the more specialized search tools such as photos, news, and travel in increasing numbers. Over time, some of the specialized searches have proven to be so popular (e.g. news and weather) that Yahoo has integrated them into the standard search results to improve the search experience for the user.

Gatz then touched on what users are actually searching for when using Yahoo. What was interesting was that the popularity of many searches is directly related to media other than the web. Appearances on the Howard Stern Radio Show, movies and reality shows shown on broadcast networks, and up and coming music artists were noted as creating some of the most popular searches.

Another interesting note Gatz provided regarding their searches was that users tend to search for different things depending on what day and time the search is conducted. He gave examples of Wednesday evening and Thursday morning being focused on lottery results, Saturday focused on cartoons, Sunday homework related, and Monday's searches being work related.

Lycos

Thomas Wilde, General Manager at Lycos, stated that user satisfaction is what drives their business model. To ensure that they are focused on their users, they employ a wide variety of research and testing methods. He explained this by detailing how they managed the launch of the newly re-designed Lycos web site.

According to Wilde, when creating the new design for Lycos they started with a planning phase. In this phase, they used a variety of techniques including competitive analysis, user surveys, focus groups and market research to determine the framework for the design. He said that once the planning phase is complete, they then move on to their development/deployment phase.

In the development/deployment phase, they keep the user as part of the process by conducting extensive user testing on the design. This testing includes paper and HTML mock-ups, field studies, and comparative testing of similar features on competitive sites. They also employ eye and click tracking to improve the placement of important elements in the design.

Once development and testing is complete on the new design, Wilde stated, they then make it available to the public, but continue to monitor its success. They do that by listening to user feedback and analyzing their site statistics. They also monitor industry metrics to ensure that Lycos is continuing to grow along with the market.

Being somewhat different than many of the other sessions at the Search Engine Strategies conference (i.e. not directly about promoting or marketing a web site), "Search Engines and Users" should interest many future attendees of the conference. The session had a nice balance of technical and general interest information while still being on the topic of search engines. At the very least, any attendee should be pleased to learn that the engines have already prepared for them to misspell "Britney Spears" or "Brad Pitt" the next time they conduct a search.

Craig Fifield is Product Designer for Microsoft bCentral's Small Business Web site analysis and submission service, Submit It!

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