Like many Americans, I wanted to know what was up with the vote in the US midterm elections this morning. As a search analyst, I then wanted to know how the search engines performed in helping me find out. The results are in! Yahoo's the winner by far, but I'd still take the New York Times over it. Come along for an illustrated tour.
Google told us last month that Google Earth was all geared up to be an election guide. That's great if you've downloaded Google Earth and wanted to learn more before the election. But how about a quick, fast summary of what happened yesterday? What's Google got for us?
The Google home page is as minimal as always, no help there -- not even a special logo as in the 2004 race.
How about a search for "election results," which I think is a fair query to try. After all, using Google Trends, I can see a huge spike for that term after the last elections in the US:
I also checked the volume for just "results," and that was even higher whereas "elections" was much lower (see them all compared here). So my two queries for this test were "election results" and "results." On Google, both disappointed.
Here are election results on Google:
CNN's top with 2004 results! I know -- web search is always behind the times. That's why Google inserts that big news results OneBox unit above the regular results. Let's click on the main news link there, which takes us to news results:
Pretty bad. News about the dollar, stock prices -- but who won?!!! I've got to really work to figure this out, especially compared to the New York Times, as I'll show at the end of this story.
Maybe I head to the actual Google News home page:
Nope. I get some headlines telling me about the Democratic house victory, but it could be much better.
FYI, checking on a search for just results, I don't even get the news headlines inserted. Overall, I found Google to be a pretty poor resource.
How about Yahoo? The home page there immediately gives you some news:
If I actually gravitate to the picture and resist the pull of the search box, the "Full elections coverage" link takes me to a Full Coverage page with lots of info, including an interactive results page (my link takes that out of the normal pop-up box, but it still works great):
This is very, very nice. I can see at a glance who is ahead in the race for control of the US House Of Representatives, plus with a click I can check out the Senate or governor races. Selecting any state also gives me the information about races with that state.
I love this. It very similar to what impressed me at the New York Times. I hope Yahoo searchers found it. However, I suspect many bypassed it. To understand why, let's do that search for election results:
Similar to Google, Yahoo inserts a big "News Results" shortcut unit above the regular results, to help detour searchers into the freshest results. Of course, searcers might bypass that. If so, unlike Google, Yahoo has managed to get the CNN 2006 results page up rather than the CNN 2004 page. Nice. After that, there's Fox News 2006. But c'mon -- Yahoo's own special election results are third. This is one case where I'd totally applaud a little hand manipulation to get that to the top, especially to highlight that interactive results summary page.
Still, the web search results for this particular day at Yahoo far outshine Google. That's almost certainly due to some human editing, which is fine. Along with the sites I've mentioned, you get the New York Times politics page, USA Today's politics page, C-SPAN's 2006 results page, the ABC News politics page, CBS News's 2006 page, politics from the LA Times, then the Washington Post's 2006 results page. All of these are excellent choices. If Yahoo did human intervention to make this happen, kudos to them. You can check out a snapshot of the entire page here.
Over at Google, nothing is either timely or general enough. The Virginia state election board, California election info, assorted things dating from 2004 -- then oddly Virginia and California get another bump for their 2006 pages. Ugh. See the entire list in the snapshot here.
What happens if we detour into the news area that Yahoo promotes at the top of the page? Disappointment:
Yes, relevant news stories. And the image results to the side are kind of fun. But some hand help could have made a difference. How about a promo for that awesome election map of Yahoo's?
I'd also get to this box if I went to the Ask home page and clicked on the Election Day link there:
But for election results (what I believe to be the more popular query), all I get is a small news unit:
The news unit will take me over to some news results, but like Yahoo's, these aren't thrilling. It's pick and choose through what you want, rather than any type of easy overview. As for a search on just results, that doesn't even bring back the news unit at all.
The overall web search results, similar to Google, are underwhelming. Nothing really helpful for the 2006 results pops up (see the full results in the snapshot here).
Even the special Smart Answers box, had it shown up, isn't that helpful for what I want now -- RESULTS! None of the featured links with it takes me to results.
Microsoft, what have you got for me at Windows Live Search? On the home page, nothing. For search on election results, it's disappointing old or non-targeted results (screenshot here). Unlike the others, there are no news results inserted above these. A search for just results is no better. If I specifically try a news search for election results, as with the others, there's no attempt to get me a comprehensive overview. It's up to me to review each story and hope for a good match.
Ironically, at the largely overshadowed MSN site, similar to Yahoo, I get a big election photo on the home page along with links, including one called "state-by-state results" that leads to MSNBC here. And over there is a pretty neat "Democracy Dashboard" giving me that type of overview I wanted:
It's a pity Windows Live didn't reach out to either MSN or MSNBC and do something special to point to this or somehow integrate it into the results.
What about AOL? From the home page, it's pretty easy to spot a link to a AOL election page with results for the House, Senate and more:
Searching for election results brings back disappointing Google listings in the main results. However, the new FullView column does a good job of dividing news into elections overall, US Senate coverage, US House coverage and more. And clicking on any of the "View all" links brings up the special AOL election page (see the full page here).
Now to the New York Times. I headed over there pretty much by chance. There are any number of newspapers I might of thought of off the top of my head, and usually its my original home town paper of the Los Angeles Times. But I hit the NY Times today, and boy was I glad.
Right on the home page, above the "fold" is an easy-to-spot election map. In seconds, it organized the most important information I was looking for into a way for me to know what was going on:
Drilling into the full map was even better. There, I could click on any state -- in particular the undecided ones -- and see the current situation:
Just when I was thinking "what if," I saw the "Create Outcomes" tab where I could click on a state and flip it to the Democrats or the Republicans to see how it might go with the Senate. Outstanding!
Other newspapers or web sites might have done as well with similar displays. If so, my apologies that this wasn't a review of the best election results sites. Instead, it was really meant to see how well the search engines held up as information resources for this particular news event.
Overall, I've written many times before that there's a role humans can play in search results. Today -- this was a perfect example of that. Yahoo almost certainly put some human effort into crafting results, and it was the clear victor in terms of quality of what was coming up in web search listings. AOL comes in second, again where human effort has helped its FullView listings help make up for the poor crawler-based results from Google.
In third, I put Google and Ask. Google's results were poor, but at least it floated some news results that may have helped. Ask, I was rooting for. But that Smart Answers box simply wasn't showing up for the queries I thought people were doing. Even if people were getting it for "election," it wasn't helpful to get election results. I really appreciate the effort, and if this had been for something other than actual results, Ask would have been great. In last place -- Windows Live.
This campaign of sorts is also one of those classic "what if" races. With just a little more effort, Yahoo would have had a landslide victory by getting people to its great overview page. The same is true for AOL. Ask, with just a bit more thought, could have had that box coming up for "election results" rather than just "elections" and added some links to get people to actual results. Windows Live, if it had remembered its MSN origins, might not be in last. And Google? A company that's all about organizing information might not have put in such a poor performance if it used some human power in the way the New York Times did.
Postscript: See also Case Study: Digg Versus Google News Traffic from me on my personal blog that covers how this article ultimately brought in lots of traffic from Google News from those unable to find election results there, along with lots of other data and a comparison to traffic from a top story at Digg on the same day.