Searching With Invisible Tabs

A longer version of this article for Search Engine Watch members looks at tab use beyond Google, explores how invisible tabs may end the dominance of web page
results, offers comments about invisible tab use from major search engines and covers what such use
means from the search engine marketer’s perspective.
Click here to learn more about becoming a member

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


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.

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.

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.

A longer version of this article for Search Engine Watch members looks at tab use beyond Google, explores how invisible tabs may end the dominance of web page
results, offers comments about invisible tab use from major search engines and covers what such use
means from the search engine marketer’s perspective.
Click here to learn more about becoming a member

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