Friday, September 24, 2010

In Defense of Google, or Why Search Isn’t About Bells and Whistles

I read a tiring article wherein Google was accused of being a Bing copy-cat, and that Microsoft should sit still if they want to usurp Google. The post suggests two key Google weaknesses:

  1. It has fewer features than Bing
  2. Its new Instant Search is traumatic to the elderly

I’d like to offer a few counterpoints.

It has fewer features than Bing

I used to wonder why Google remained so simple and basic while others like Ask.com were adding fancy search results pages. What I came to realize is that “simple and basic” are features. Google goes all out to be minimalistic while offering some less eye-catching, but seriously important features like performance, relevance, and real-time results.

While Bing fills your screen with beautiful images overlaid with elegant, animated menus, Google takes a different approach:

vs.

Sure, Bing is gorgeous here. However, that’s not what’s important to me. When I hit the search engine, I want to find stuff and I don’t want to wait. This is Bing’s greatest weakness: speed. As I type this, Bing repeatedly takes 8-10 seconds to load from an empty cache. Google takes 1-2 seconds. Actually, the difference is worse than that—I just measured with the always awesome Fiddler:

vs.

Bing: 8.18 seconds per load; Google: 0.75 seconds per load. Admittedly, this is hardly scientific. I’m doing this test from a single laptop, in a single location, tethered through a cell phone. And yet this directly agrees with my experience each time I try Bing (this is not an isolated issue for me). My point is that Google is freaky fast and it’s a worthwhile feature.

I’d also argue that Google focuses on far more useful features than other services (e.g. relevance) but it’s hard to stay objective on that road.

Its new Instant Search is Traumatic to the Elderly

(Beware: Sweeping generalizations ahead.) Let’s be honest here, the elderly aren’t looking at the screen when they type anyway, and if they are, Google Instant isn’t going to even be active on their pokey dial up connection. But if it is and they don’t like it, they can turn it off:

image

The article creates this example:

Let's try a search for Google Fast Flip. Punch in "F" to a Google search box, and loads of "Facebook" results now appear. By "Fas," there are miles of links to "fashion" sites. The next moment, "Fast" brings up page after page for "Fastenal," a leading supplier of industrial supplies. By "Fast F" users start seeing results for "Fast Food." And only by "Fast Fl" do we arrive at the correct results.

That would be frustrating. But that’s not how people use computers. I don’t type one letter, then pause to see what happens, then type another. A more realistic scenario would be someone rapidly typing “fast flip” like this:

image

In this case, the whole point of Instant Search is that after the query is typed, the results are immediately displayed, as well as a few extra hints in case the user wants to further hone the results by adding “api”, “iphone”, etc. That’s pretty useful.

As for the flashing screen? I don’t find it bothersome at all—it’s no more abrupt than what happens every time a link is clicked, after all. I’d bet money they had a prototype that animated the transition from empty search box to the results page. I bet it looked awesome, too, but they scrapped it because the animation didn’t add enough value to offset the time wasted waiting for things to slide around.

Google is elegant. Bing is showy.