The Search User Wants a Story

I fired up reddit this morning and was completely flabbergasted by one of the top posts.  The title of the post was “This is Why I Use Google, Not Bing”.  And it linked straight to this screenshot (which I reproduce here, in case the target disappears at some point):

cl8qo

This blew my mind, not only that an alphageek would prefer the (Google) interface on the left to the (Bing) interface on the right, but that the redditor alphageek community would so heavily upvote it.  The way I see it, this speaks directly to the issues of simplicity as storytelling vs. sparsity that I’ve talked about from time to time.  The interface on the left is anything but sparse.  In fact, it is extremely busy and filled with images,  a tool belt of various verticals (news, video images), query modification tools such as timelines and recency sorting, and query reformulation tools such as narrowly related searches (top middle) and broadly related searches (lower left).

In short, everything about it is “non-Googly”, i.e. non-sparse and non-clean.  Ironically, the Bing results for this particular query — which is held up as the example of what not to do — is the cleaner one.

So why is it that thousands of Google-loving redditors prefer the interface that is, well, more Bing-like?  Could it be that the user is finally starting to understand that simplicity is not the same thing as sparsity?  That what matters is the story?  The Google results in this case tell a really good story.  They give a concise overview of the latest matches and scores.  They link directly to highlights.  They give a concise overview of upcoming matches and the time at which each occurs.  And they acknowledge that when you search for “World Cup”, you’re not just trying to navigate to a single page.  Instead, you are “exploratorily” looking for as much information as you can about what is happening at the event as a whole, and perhaps even with football (soccer) as a whole. This is not just a “one box” answer. This is a whole “cluttered” set of rich information and interaction options.

That’s the story.  And if it takes a non-sparse (complex or cluttered) interface to tell that story, then so be it.  The story is more important than the strict adherence to sparsity.  Which is something that I’ve been hammering on about for at least the past half decade now.  It is just encouraging to see users finally start to acknowledge it.

Now, all we need to do is let the redditor community know that even though Google beat Bing on this one particular query, overall Bing has been pushing more of this story-appropriate, non-sparse, information rich (“cluttered”) interaction in their results.  What I wish users did more of is constantly rotate between the various engines, to know for themselves which queries work on which engines, and what each of the various engines are capable of.  Because the irony here is that the redditor that which “This is Why I Use Google, Not Bing” has chosen and interface that is much more Bing-like, and less traditionally “Googly”.

See also my related post, about two Googlers (Norvig and an anonymous employee) and their comments about Bing at the Semantic Technology conference in June 2009.

Update: In the couple of minutes between when I saw the reddit link and when I finished writing this post, the Google vs. Bing image went from 4th on the reddit home page (with ~500 upvotes) to 2nd (with ~750 upvotes).  Clearly this has touched a nerve.  It’s very interesting to see this reaction, especially because the preferred interface, again, is so traditionally non-Googly and cluttered.

19 comments to The Search User Wants a Story

  • Jon

    There’s something clearly wrong with that Bing results page — either it was produced months ago, or the query landed in some test bucket. There’s no ads, no other vertical results, no images, on what has got to be one of the most popular searches now. Performing the search now paints a very different picture. Right now, I see 2-3 ads, boxes of results for news, with accompanying images, as well as scores for games in progress, top scoring players, etc. Not exactly the same information that Google shows, but similarly rich.

  • jeremy

    “…but similarly rich.”

    Case in point. :-) My intent wasn’t to knock Bing, but to demonstrate that users really do crave that richness.

  • jb

    There’s another reason at play here:

    People tend to compare UIs with snapshots. But, you’ve got to understand that Google modifies its UI subtly, collects feedback and rolls back or continues changes. So, over time the interface might get cluttered as a whole and if looked as one isolated snapshot. But, users would have gotten used to the various portions of the UI (and the various features).

    The “cluttered” Google UI didn’t come about in one shot. Users have had ample time to get used to the features/links on the left, for example.

    Even the “clutter” in the middle is not really clutter – its a table of one piece of information relevant to the search – which again users have to expect and is pulled out quite carefully (perhaps even setup manually).

  • jb

    typo above – “users have come to expect” in place of “users have to expect”

  • jb

    Sorry, but I have more comments:
    “The this is why I use Google” comment is pretty interesting. I don’t think it would be right to think that literal comparisons of the snapshots is all there is to it – that’s too superficial.

    What that comment instead suggests that the Google UI has subtly won the hearts of its users and the “process” behind it is the fiddling around with the UI to see what works and continuing what seems to work. As a result, users feel that Google knows what they want and the loyalty continues. Also, Google continues to add new bells and whistles (but only if user feedback validates the change) thereby avoiding being stagnant. Ultimately, I think the process is to be lauded – Google’s UI will change tomorrow, it may or may not look cluttered – user’s may want a story today or they may want a visual gallery.. the point is there needs to be a UI process that keeps the user’s engaged.

  • mg

    When you are looking to live in a new apartment, you want it to be clean and tidy. When you start living in it, you may keep it messy but you love it because even though its messy you know where everything is.

  • jeremy

    @jb: You make excellent points and I don’t disagree with you. Google measures its users and then follows that gradient. And users notice that Google changes according to what they want, and it’s that sense that creates the loyalty, rather than a static screen shot. You’re perfectly right.

    But up until Bing appeared, there seemed to be a certain limit as to how far Google was actually willing to follow that user gradient, or willing to try certain information-rich designs, to see how they worked in the first place. There seemed to be a very strong prior on the space of solutions that Google was willing to attempt/measure, and that prior favored spartan interfaces, and penalized rich interfaces. Measuring and reacting the user doesn’t matter, if you’re unwilling to do certain types of measurements in the first place. Right?

    Here are a couple of quotes from the past few years, as examples of this strong prior/bias away from richness:

    “Google is about a clean, simple look, but it’s also about information density. For the home page, we don’t know what you’re looking for, so it should be clean and simple.” Marissa Mayer, Feb 2008 (http://vox.fastcompany.com/fast50_08/google_marissa-mayer.html)

    ‘All of us on the UI team think the value of Google is in not being cluttered, in offering a great user experience. I like to say that Google should be “what you want, when you want it.” As opposed to “everything you could ever want, even when you don’t.” I think Google should be like a Swiss Army knife: clean, simple, the tool you want to take everywhere. When you need a certain tool, you can pull these lovely doodads out of it and get what you want. So on Google, rather than showing you upfront that we can do all these things, we give you tips to encourage you to do things these ways.’ -Marissa Mayer, Oct 2002 (http://goodexperience.com/2002/10/interview-marissa-mayer-produc.php)

    Also from the same interview:

    “There’s this one user, a Google zealot – we don’t know who he is – who occasionally sends an e-mail to our “comments” address. Every time he writes, the e-mail contains only a two-digit number. It took us awhile to figure out what he was doing. Turns out he’s counting the number of words on the home page. When the number goes up, like up to 52, it gets him irritated, and he e-mails us the new word count. As crazy as it sounds, his e-mails are helpful, because it has put an interesting discipline on the UI team, so as not to introduce too many links.” (http://goodexperience.com/2002/10/interview-marissa-mayer-produc.php)

  • jeremy

    ..and it’s not like Bing doesn’t measure and react to the user, either. Of course they do. So while I agree with you that it’s not just about static screenshot, but about the dynamic evolution of the interface, that same dynamic evolution exists with Bing, too. So that doesn’t fully explain the reddit alphageeks’ comments, either.

    The full reason or story is likely more complex, as most good stories are. I do note, however, that the Google interface on the left is more Binglike than anything that Google had ever done, before Bing existed.

    Competition is good.

  • jb

    I don’t follow the Google vs Bing debate closely so I may miss the issue completely if indeed Google’s changes are direct responses to Bing. So, with that huge caveat said:

    I’m not 100% sure that Google would not have made some of the changes that it has, if Bing was not around. Because there are other factors – I suspect that users have evolved (with new cluttered interfaces like myspace/faacebook and cluttered conversations like in twitter, Google is still quite clean and simple) and, Google would have felt the pressure to change as a result of following its process, anyway. What we do not know now… is whether for every user who is bothered by an increase in word count, there are 10 who would like more shortcut links/features for example. The zealot case makes a better story though.

    I find issues like these remain split on idealogical lines (clean vs cluttered) long after things change and the subjective aspects change. There may come a point when Google risks much by feature overload, etc and it is always difficult to know… but change will happen. And, I would think that they would mess up more as a result of a flaw in the process than the expansion of the set of possibilities they consider.

    Future/recent comments by Marissa Mayer will be indicative of any drastic shifts, although even there, I find that public comments by top management typically hide internal debate to a huge extent. They will likely parrot the impressions users like to have of Google. And, so what might appear like a huge, sudden shift might be a small one and a shift over time internally.

    In other words, no big deal what Google does with its UI along the clean/cluttered/sparse dimension – the question is… do users still find the changes/additions/subtractions useful (and if the answer is a pre-defined yes because of Google’s rigorous UI testing process then the answer is known prior to deployment).

    Its easy to agree though that Bing might have made Google more aggressive with UI, and that ofcourse, competition is good. It will be interesting to monitor Bing vs Google further.

  • jb

    Oh, and btw, saying that Bing has dynamic evolution too is the same as saying Microsoft has an mp3 player too (in response to the ipod).

  • “So that doesn’t fully explain the reddit alphageeks’ comments, either.”

    Maybe it’s all about the world cup euphoria ;)
    The majority more or less get what they want. The problem is still to reach this state for the majority of queries.

  • Maybe the “this is why I like Google” has to do with how Google changes its results page with respect to events. If someone is searching for the World Cup, chances are very high that at this moment they are referring to the FIFA WC.

    Also if say for example I search for “World Cup Germany” I get a rich set of results with the group results and knockout scores specific to that country.

    Bing is still showing a list of news articles at the top of the results page (I’m in India – if there is anything geography specific there) while Google has been spot on in this regard with links to the highlights of games and showing scores (I think they’re real-time, but I’m not sure).

    As nothing more than a voracious Google user, I have always felt that Google has been more about focus than simplicity. In the case of certain events what you look for is quick updates and not links to some other news source.

    PS: Simply using bing for a while now. There are many small things to like about this search engine. Those tabs are perfectly positioned. Have to say, I’ve changed my searching style to suit Google – now that I think about it. Hm…

  • Perhaps sparsity isn’t the main concern here. When I look at those two screenshots, I see one that places a very strong bet on how to extrapolate the user’s information need (i.e., please show me the current scores and upcoming schedule for the FIFA World Cup) and one that hedges on what the words “world cup” ever refer to. While I’m a big fan of diversity in general, I’m pretty sure the first approach is the better on in this case, where the search engine is very confident in the precision of its interpretation and can aggressively respond on that basis. And, as Jon points out, Bing’s current results are similarly committed to a single query interpretation.

  • jeremy

    @jb: “I’m not 100% sure that Google would not have made some of the changes that it has, if Bing was not around.”

    Nor am I. I do have the (perhaps wrong) impression that the existence of Bing has accelerated Google’s rollout of some of those changes, though.

    “What we do not know now… is whether for every user who is bothered by an increase in word count, there are 10 who would like more shortcut links/features for example.”

    Well this is what I don’t understand. Users don’t actually change that quickly. Web technology changes, but people don’t. So you would think that if 10 out of every 11 people like more links/features now, that the same thing was true a decade ago. And vice versa. It makes me wonder why it took ten years to finally start getting to this point.

    “I find that public comments by top management typically hide internal debate to a huge extent. They will likely parrot the impressions users like to have of Google.”

    Right. So this is one source of my consternation.

    @neelannair: “Maybe the “this is why I like Google” has to do with how Google changes its results page with respect to events.”

    Ok, that sounds plausible. But it’s not like Bing (or Yahoo) don’t change, either. All of them do.

    @Daniel: “Perhaps sparsity isn’t the main concern here.”

    What you do mean? That sparsity isn’t your/my concern? Isn’t the user’s concern? Or isn’t the search engine’s concern? I agree, for this particular query, the right thing to do is what Google has done. But if you remember when Bing first arrived, it had many more results pages that looked like this, i.e. low on the sparsity scale, high on the information density. And Bing was routinely mocked in the blogosphere for it. Now that Google is doing similar things, and including not only exploratory information at the top of the list, but also including related searches, “something different” searches, timeline results, etc. I see it as validation for the exploratory approach. Don’t get me wrong; I think it’s the right thing to do. I just wonder why it took ten years to get here.

    And I don’t believe the story that it took ten years because that’s how long it took for “users to change”. They haven’t changed. Had a user gone to a search engine during the 2002 World Cup, are you (or is someone) telling me that the user would have *preferred* the results on the right more than the ones on the left? No. Of course not. 2002 World Cup fans want to know just as much about scores and upcoming games as 2010 World Cup fans. The user hasn’t changed. The search engine is finally catching up. It just took a lot longer than I would have liked. And I frankly have to wonder why.

  • I’m with neelannair and Daniel here … the results are event driven. The World Cup has a massive global audience and Google as well as Bing would know in advance that visitors are going to want to know the latest “news” about the World Cup. They’ve anticipated this and provided the latest information. Google has done a better job in presenting the news than Bing. I’m sure in a few weeks time, Google/Bing will revert to a different results and display format for the query “world cup” and moved onto another big event that needs just-in-time ranking and display fiddling.

  • jeremy

    @Dinesh: Of course these results are event-driven. But that fact is orthogonal to my main observation, which is that there is a willingness on G’s part to show results in 2010 that include not only scores, upcoming matches, etc. But also Related Searches, “Something different searches, timelines, a ribbon of related verticals (News, video, images, blogs, etc.) all on the very same busy, cluttered, results page!

    Right?

    This isn’t just showing the latest “news” on the World Cup. This isn’t just a World Cup “onebox”. This is ALL these various, busy, attention-competing options, showing at the same time. And THAT is what the reddit alphageek loves. The whole package. No complaints about “I like that Google does this game scores thing, but man I wish the page weren’t so cluttered.” No. Just a simple acknowledgment that the overall Google results page is better.

  • jeremy

    And the other point is, they didn’t do this for World Cup 2002, even though the user had the same exact event-driven needs back then that they do today. Why?

  • Azza

    I am querying right now and get a nice short table from Bing.
    I do not like result from Google. It’s impossible to scan.
    You need too long time to read it.

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