Monday, November 10, 2008

Google Researcher Looks at Search Habits
Google respects simplicity. That's clear based on the design of their home page (assuming you don't use iGoogle). It's changed very little since the beginning. It's simple, clean, and familiar. A field study from Google into the search habits of users has made it even more clear that simplicity reigns supreme when it comes to search.

We who are to any degree, professionally involved with the search engine and technology industries often take things for granted. We know what certain words and phrases mean, and often expect others to, when the reality is that they don't. I'm not saying I'm the smartest guy out there either. I am constantly looking up words and phrases myself (just one of the many useful yet simple features Google offers).

Google has acknowledged this though by making its advanced search tool simpler. Search Quality Researcher Daniel Russell says at the Official Google Blog:
Armed with this insight from field studies, we redesigned the page, simplifying it by removing terms that were unclear to the average user (the word "occurrences," for example, just didn't mean anything to many of the Advanced Search page users), moving rarely used features (numeric range searches, date searches, etc.) into a part of the page that was expandable with a single click. That made them easy to get to for people who knew they wanted to search with those restrictions, but out of the way in a non-threatening way.

One of the other things we noted in the field study was that people often didn't understand how the Advanced Search page worked. So we added a "visible query builder" region at the top of the page. As you fill in the blanks, the box at the top of the page fills in with the query that you could type into Google. It was our way of making visible the effects of advanced search operators.
The product of redesigning the page looks like this(you can see the old version here). That wasn't what the whole field study was about though. In Google's ongoing quest to improve search quality, they observed people's search habits, and found that in the end, while some of the information retrieved was useful, much of it was unreliable. In other words, when people are being watched by researchers, they act differently than they would otherwise.

Eye tracking was an additional component of the field study. They provided an interesting look at this with the following video. The red dot in the video represents the movement of eyes on the page for three different users.

I suggest reading Russell's post in its entirety to get a better feel for the kind of research he has been doing. In fact, his post is really only the latest in a series on search quality from the Google Blog. The series itself is definitely worth checking out for gaining insight into Google's search quality quest.

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