Google Search Options and the Paradox of Choice

Google finally acquiesces, and starts exposing more advanced, user-controllable search result refactorization options.  See here, here, and here:

But as people get more sophisticated at search they are coming to us to solve more complex problems. To stay on top of this, we have spent a lot of time looking at how we can better understand the wide range of information that’s on the web and quickly connect people to just the nuggets they need at that moment. We want to help our users find more useful information, and do more useful things with it. Our first announcement today is a new set of features that we call Search Options, which are a collection of tools that let you slice and dice your results and generate different views to find what you need faster and easier. Search Options helps solve a problem that can be vexing: what query should I ask? Let’s say you are looking for forum discussions about a specific product, but are most interested in ones that have taken place more recently. That’s not an easy query to formulate, but with Search Options you can search for the product’s name, apply the option to filter out anything but forum sites, and then apply an option to only see results from the past week.

I’m pleased to see that it is finally happening.  For years I’ve clamored about how frustrating it is that Google not only hasn’t given users these sorts of options, but has actively campaigned against such functionality: They have often said that exposing advanced tools is “too complex” for users and that it would clutter the famously clean Google interface.  Perhaps the long-held belief that simplicity trumps all other considerations is finally being let go, with the understanding that functionality is sometimes more important than bare and minimal interfaces.  This is a good thing.

Willingness to expose these tools helps topple the myth that is often perpetuated, about how HCIR interfaces offer the user too much choice and therefore do more harm than good (see Ranked Lists and the Paradox of Choice).  Think for a moment about a search interface that does not let you refactor your topically-relevant results by time.  In that case, if you’re looking for information that was created (say) one week ago, the results will not necessarily be sorted in an order that matches your need, even if they are all topically relevant.  Therefore, if the first result wasn’t created a week ago, you’ll have to decide whether to move to the second result.  If the second result wasn’t create a week ago, you have to decide whether to move to the third result.  This could go on in perpetuity, up to the 1.3 million results returned by your query.  That’s 1.3 million choices that you could potentially be faced with in the process of trying to satisfy your information need.

However, with the simple option of giving you the choice, the tool, to add time-based information into your query, you expand the number of choices for creating your search results by +1, but reduce the number of choices that you have to make when actually examining your search results by hundreds or even thousands.  Once again, it appears that the Paradox of Choice afflicts the overly-simplistic, minimalist interface more than it does the tools-based approach.  Adding search options, adding user-controllable search tools to the interface does not increase the number of choices a use has to make.  It reduces them.

Now, when are they going to add the tool to help me find my cafe in Prague?

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One Response to Google Search Options and the Paradox of Choice

  1. Pingback: Information Retrieval Gupf » More on Simplicity and the Paradox of Choice

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