NOTE: This story was originally published on March 29, 2004.
Google has unveiled a new look that involves dropping its famed search tabs, along with debuting a web alerts service and a personalized search results option.
New Access To Search Options
Google's new look sees the service losing the "tabs" that it added back in October 2001.
"Some people found them confusing. The main reason was to get back some of the screen real estate. It takes up less vertical space [on the search results page”," said Peter Norvig, Google's director of search quality.
In place of the tabs are small hyperlinks over the search box on the Google home page and its search results page. They operate just as the former tabs did.
Click on a search link, and you can access one of Google's main specialized databases: Web for web results, Images for image results, Groups for newsgroup searching, News for news searching and a new Froogle tab added to provide easy access to Google's Froogle shopping search results
A new "more" link also provides handy access to a page containing lesser-known Google searches and tools, such as Google's answer search service or its translation tool. This More Searches page is also home to those who want to access the Google Directory, a human-compiled guide to the web.
Previously found via its own tab, the Google Directory has been demoted to the More Searches page.
"We analyzed what people were using, and that had become less popular over time. As the web grows, directory structures get harder to use," Norvig said. "It didn't seem to be worth the real estate on the home page."
Demoting the directory may also be a way for Google to eventually distance itself from from the Open Directory Project, which powers it. The volunteer-produced directory was added back in 2000, near the height of the Open Directory's popularity.
Today, there are often complaints that the ODP, has not keep up with submission demands. In addition, there have been delays in getting the most current data out in a format that ODP partners such as Google can use.
Ultimately, any problem with the Open Directory -- which is not in Google's control -- still reflects badly on Google. A case in point was criticism aimed at Google last October by prominent blogger Dave Winer. Winer was upset that none of his blog tools appeared in a category of the Google Directory, while at the corresponding ODP category, the tools were shown.
When I looked into the matter, it appeared that Google likely hadn't been given the latest Open Directory information. Google itself never responded to follow-up questions I'd asked, however, so I can't say for certain. It is clear that no matter how the omission happened, Google itself ultimately bears the blame for what is published on its own web site. Hence perhaps the desire to be less reliant on the ODP going forward.
In good news, searching the Google Directory does again search only directory results, rather than the entire web, as was a problem toward the end of last year.
Google Local Search, rolled out earlier this month, does not appear as a search link on the home page. Google doesn't believe the service is yet developed enough for this type of visibility to be given.
"This is a long way from its lab launch, but it's still a product that's in beta," said Marissa Mayer, Google's director of consumer web products, when talking with Search Engine Watch editors about the local launch earlier this month. "When we are more comfortable taking it out of beta, I think then we'd be really look at adding a tab."
Changes To Ad Format
On Google's search results page, the sidebar boxes that contained sponsored links are now gone. Instead, a vertical line separates sponsored links from paid results. These all come under a "Sponsored Links" heading and remain on the right-hand side of the page, as before. Other sponsored listings that appeared at the top of unpaid results in boxes appear to have been retained.
"We wanted a page that looked cleaner," Norvig said, about losing the boxes. "People are still very much clear on what's an ad and what's not."
Norvig said it was too early to tell if the ads were drawing more clicks due to the changes but dismissed that this was a primary reason for the change.
"It wasn't a goal specifically to increase clickthrough," he said.
Invisible Tabs / One Box Results
Google is continuing to do invisible tab promotion of some of its specialty content, as it long has done with news. Internally, it calls these "one box results," with the idea being that even though users make use of one single search box from the Google home page, they'll still be exposed at appropriate times to specialized search content such as news or shopping results.
A change has been to make the one box results section more prominent than in the past. Previously, suggested news headlines or shopping results looked different than "regular" web results. Now, they are inline in the web search results and look much more similar to them, which should encourage clickthrough.
To see one box results in action, here are some specifics:
- News headlines: search for iraq, and these appear alongside a newspaper icon.
- Shopping search: search for canon powershot, and these appear alongside a shopping bag icon. These were added in added in December
- Local search: search for san francisco dentist, and these appear alongside a compass icon. These were added earlier this month
Web Alert Service Introduced
Site owners and others have long wanted the ability to be alerted to changes in Google's web search results. In fact, the third-party Google Alert service has grown popular because of this.
A new Google Web Alerts service now allows monitoring of a number of terms on a daily or weekly basis. The first 20 results are monitored and emailed to you. A similar Google News Alerts service was introduced last August.
Neither Google Alert or the new Google Web Alerts service provide enough functionality for those interested in rank checking purposes, however. Tools like WebPosition have long been used to do this and still continue to be popular despite Google's warnings against automated rank checking.
Google has banned some users of these tools from being able to access Google's results, though it has never actually banned pages themselves from being listed that Search Engine Watch knows of, just because someone used a rank checking tool (for more, see articles at the end of the ranking checking tools page for Search Engine Watch members. WebPosition also provides its own defense here).
Meanwhile, other tools like SEO Count and GoogleRankings.com have sprung up claiming acceptability by Google. SEO Count has said its use of the Google API appears OK by Google, given the company has been in contact and has not asked the service to stop. GoogleRankings.com simply claims on its site that it has been given permission by Google to operate, apparently because it also uses the Google API.
Personalized Search Debuts
All the major search engines have said recently that they see personalized search results as a key way to advance relevancy. Now Google is the first among them to provide a real personalized service for users to play with for web page search refinement.
Google Personalized Web Search is a beta service that allows users to refine results based on their interests. You can set up a profile of your interests, then use a "slider" bar that appears above web results to see the results reshaped toward what you may like.
For example, use the profile page to tell Google that you like video games, then do a search for cars. Push the slider to "Max," and the results change so that sites generally about cars, such as Cars.com and Jaguar, get pushed below personalized selections such as pages from computer game sites GameSpy.com or GameSpot.com. Small Google "colored balls" appear next to any personalized results.
How does Google know what to deliver as personalized content. The company is categorizing pages across the web, understanding what's relevant to topics such as "video games" or "movies," Norvig said. When someone does a search, Google looks through pages associated with their interest to find matches.
Problems With Too Many Interests
In the example above, Google would find the most relevant pages assigned to the topic of video games that are also about cars. However, the situation becomes more confused when you have multiple interests.
For instance, let's say I tell Google that my profile also includes an interest in movies, computer hardware, the internet, general news and astronomy.
The "personalized" results that come back after doing this don't feel personalized toward anything, even though all but one of the top ten are show to be personal results. Among them is the Washington Post cars section, an article from the BBC about high-tech car entertainment and a Knoxville Tennessee used car web site.
What's happening is that Google's system can't tell exactly which of my interests to target. It sees pages that are relevant to cars with various different topic areas, but it doesn't know which topic I'm most interested in.
"That's part of the reason it's on Labs," Norvig said, referring to personalized search's status as a Google Labs project. "You're right, that's one of the issues. You can certainly go back and forth and change your profile, but that's a little clunky."
Norvig said the Google engineering team will be exploring ways around the issue, as well as ways to advance the personalization project in general.
Where's the technology coming from? To classify pages, Google is using a blend of technology acquired during its purchase of Applied Semantics last year and its own native technology to classify pages, which is has long used to deliver AdSense contextual ads.
Google also is not using any type of clickthrough measurements or user feedback to associate personal preferences with pages, the company said. In particular, data from the Orkut social network service launched earlier this year is not being employed, Norvig said.
Google CEO Eric Schmidt did recently say that Orkut would be integrated into Google within a year, but whether this integration means using Orkut data for search personalization or simply making Google users aware of the Orkut service in general remains to be seen. Norvig himself said he wasn't certain exactly what Schmidt's comment referred to.
There's no doubt that social network data can be applied to personalize results. Indeed, that's exactly what Eurekster is doing. It was launched in January to provide personalized search results. The service recently added a SearchGroups feature, allowing groups of people organize themselves around particular interest areas.
Unlike Google's service, this offers an interesting way to keep personal preferences from stomping on each other. The personalization technology doesn't need to decide if my "car" query is more relevant to my video game interest or my movies interest. Instead, I could search using a video game search group if that's my main interest at the time I do a search, shifting over to a movies group as desired.
Finally, Google says it does not record a personal data on its end. Instead, it remembers your general personal preferences and records these in your Google cookie. The use of cookie data by any company often raises privacy concerns. For an overview of such issues, especially looking as they apply to search, see my article from last year: Search Privacy At Google & Other Search Engines.
NOTE: Article links often change. In case of a bad link, use the publication's search facility, which most have, and search for the headline.