Are You Solving an Old Problem?

Search engines are still an onramp to the internet.

Businesses are often formed to provide a product or service – either proactively or in response to a specific problem. But businesses have to be careful that the problem that they are solving remains a current one, or that it solves the whole problem and not just part of the problem. Otherwise those businesses are vulnerable to competition from new market entrants and new technologies.  A classic example of this phenomenon is Carbon Paper.

Carbon Paper was a way of making a 2nd or 3rd copy of a document at the time of production and it did this via physical pressure – either from a typewriter or a pen or pencil. A sheet of carbon paper was inserted between the “original sheet of paper and a second sheet of paper”. One side of the carbon paper was smooth and the other side was coated with wax and carbon to transfer an image of whatever was written or typed.  This solution was quite good at producing additional copies of a document – at the time of production –  but it didn’t solve the problem of needing additional copies after a document was created. Which is why carbon paper became almost extinct as photocopier use and computer printer use became widespread. In fact for those of you who don’t know this  – the CC line in email comes from the phrase “Carbon Copy” – which is what the second document produced when using carbon paper was called.

A modern day example of this is internet search home page design. Way back in the early days of the internet when most people got online line with a 14.4 kbps or 28.8 modem – the speed of page loading meant a lot. But the early search providers in an effort to create revenue so loaded their landing pages with icons, jpgs, banner ads and the like that loading the initial page of a provider like AOL, AltaVista or Lycos took forever. Enter Google with a neat solution – a clean uncluttered landing page designed to put search literally front and center. It loaded lightning fast and was super reliable – so reliable it became a proxy for internet connectivity. I’ll leave aside the whole discussion about the minutiae of search engine performance to others better equipped to have that conversation and just focus on the interface of the landing page for now.

Google’s landing page was so fast and revolutionary back in those in the days that its presence became a proxy for internet connectivity. From personal experience here’s how an IT support call about internet connectivity typically went back then:

 “Hi support, I can’t get to the internet”. “Okay, open a browser and type h t t p : \\ no, not backward slashes, type forward slashes, those are the ones that lean to the right // w w w . google. com.” “Okay I did that.” “What happened? “I see Google.” “Okay, good. Now search on our company name and tell me what you see.”  ” I see a bunch of news stories about our company.” “Okay, so the internet is working just fine, but the site you are trying to visit isn’t.” “Well fix it.”……..

And so based on reliability, fast page loading time and a simple design – and a few other factors like search performance – Google’s market share grew, and grew, and grew. But the philosophy didn’t change much. The home page stayed fairly uncluttered by default, although it could be customized to get as cluttered as a viewer wanted. And so it went for 12 years. Of course during that 12-year period modems went the way of the Dodo bird and most  internet users now use broadband services reducing the main benefit of a landing page that loads quickly – now all search pages land fast enough for most users. And most likely the search engine of choice is built right into your browser.

Thus creating a market opportunity. If users don’t need to come to your home page to perform a search, but you still want those visitors on your home search page you have to give them a reason to visit. One way Google does this is by treating their logo as a canvas from which to honor inventors, scientists, holidays or anything else with the now-famous Google Doodle.

The much smaller competitor Bing (disclaimer: I work for Microsoft) displays a daily picture – usually a very high quality picture with mouseable informational textboxes about the image or subject matter. I’ve personally found this incredibly interesting – it’s both visually compelling and it provides as much information about that topic or picture as you want. Essentially Bing took the concept of Google’s logo changes and updated it to become even more informative and more interesting. Something that appears to be working since Bing is the only search engine provider growing its marketshare, of course Google is still the 800-pound gorilla with the lion’s share of the market.  But nonetheless Bing was the only major search engine providing a periodically changing picture as the main background image of the search homepage.

Experiments don't just happen in chemistry lab.

Until today, for a few hours anyway.  For brief period of time Google was loading a picture as a background image without any links in the image. The pictures all seemed to be of sculptures – either by Dale Chihuly or Tom Otterness. Google is famous for tweaking things on the fly just to see what happens – they’ll load test pages or change things in a production environment and measure what happens with real people in real world conditions without labeling those changes as temporary or testing.

This provides instant real-world feedback and allows for a high degree of experimentation. Today after a few hours of loading the pictures by default, Google switched back to the white background adding a line of text that says “curious about today’s homepage? Add your own image now”. My guess is that the feedback about the change from their user base was fairly universal, to end the experiment so quickly and change back to a plain white background image. This simple twitter search might be an indication of how that change was perceived by Google’s user base. 

Focusing on search for a second. Suffice it to say that both search engines meet my search needs most of the time. I very rarely search for something in one that the other can’t find and vice-versa. So for me internet search is about the interface. What’s interesting to me is that Bing’s interface and use of photos feels completely organic – it makes sense and isn’t distracting. Google’s use of photos just felt wrong and was very distracting, especially the way they loaded with a temporary screen reversal which was especially irritating. BTW, I’m using a laptop with Win7 , IE8 and 4gb of RAM on a 25mb FIOS connection so I’m normally able to load images without any problems.

I’m not sure why the use of a photo was a problem for Google and not for Bing – maybe because for Google it goes counter to what we’ve come to expect – and what we expect is a plain white background. If such a change runs counter to our expectations, it could pose a problem in the long run as Google evolves with the market. Or for that matter, for any other company trying to evolve which has the advantage and disadvantage of loyal user base. 

Obviously in the scheme of things this was just a very small test which means nothing, but it is interesting to watch the market leader in search copy, with tweaks to be sure, a specific practice of a much, much smaller rival. Obviously Bing is on to something and Google as a market leader is trying figure out how to prevent Bing from growing its market share even further. Or it could just be an experiment with no ulterior motive. What do you think? What is your reaction to either Bing’s use of pictures or to Google background image change? -t

Disclaimer: To be clear – this blog and all entries on it are my personal opinions and thoughts. They in no way reflect the opinions, thoughts or strategies of my employer, or anyone else for that matter.

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  1. #1 by Bill on 2010/06/11 - 16:42

    For my money, anything other than the information I am looking for is a distraction and wasted bandwidth. Stuff that moves is especially annoying.

    My own disclaimer: I have been in the high tech world for over 40 years. I started designing using pencil, paper, and a slide rule and have progressed to using the latest design software.

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