Thursday 18 November 2010

Google Instant: how I *wish* it worked

There's something very grating about a product that could be really useful but just isn't. It's like the really promising kid on X-Factor / American Idol who keeps falling apart and forgetting their song. The first couple of times your rooting for them but after a blowing it repeatedly you start to wish they'd just give up. For me, this is a perfect metaphor for the current iteration of Google Instant.

Google Instant how do I hate thee? Let me cout the ways.
>> Too damn fast
I'm on a fast connection and if anything GI is just too damn fast. Results are constantly flickering just below my field of focus. I tend to use very exact (e.g. long) search phrases and this gets old quick. I find myself pausing while typing to look at GI results that are irrelevant to what I actually need. The cynic in me wonders whether this is what Google want. Are they trying to be 'sticky' now, despite a decade of saying this isn't their goal?
>> Very generic phrases
It's frustrating is how useless the GI suggestions are. GI only gives you very generic phrases and they seem to be based on an average global searches. The trouble is that I'm not an average global searcher. I've been using Google forever, they have a huge trove of data about what I've searched for and which results I've clicked on. They have know which subjects I'm interested in and which ones I'm not. They put this info to use in 'normal' search in a variety of ways but apparently not in GI.

Technologically impressive
GI is clearly a very impressive bit of technology. The number of elements that have to work in harmony for it to return results that fast is honestly a little mind boggling. I take my hat off to the clever clogs who made this happen. Nevertheless, I'd prefer to wait (like a whole *second*) for even slightly better results.

An incomplete puzzle
Having said that, I'm quite sure that GI can be made a lot better and, as it's bad form to complain without offering a solution, I have a some suggestions about how it could be better. None of my suggestions are particularly original (or insightful?), mostly I'm just suggesting that existing elements be combined in better ways.

Instant Example
Here's a sample of Google Instant in action. 5 suggestions and a ton of dead space.  It's not clear how the  suggestions are ordered or whether the order has some hidden meaning. (I should probably check out whether more costly PPC terms appear first…)

Related Searches
Here's a sample of the Related Searches option. This is buried under "More Search Tools" on the left.  Obviously there are more suggestions here but they are also different from Instant and in a different (also non-obvious) order.
Wonder Wheel (of Doom!)
Here's a sample of the Wonder Wheel option also buried under "More Search Tools". Again there is no context around any of the terms and the underlines suggest links but actually trigger a new 'wheel', the results are displayed on the left but you need a very wide screen otherwise they only get ~200 pixels of width.

A mockup example
Here's my mockup for your amusement. Points to note:
1) Search suggestions appear in columns, each column depends on the column to it's left. If you've used Finder on the Mac you know the score here. User can navigate with the mouse or arrow keys.
2) Suggested terms are greyscale to indicate some hidden metric that may help the user choose between terms. Possible metrics: number of results, popularity of the term, previous visits, etc. Previously used terms could appear in purple. There are lots of possibilities here.
3) When a term is selected (using with space or arrow right) it's added to the search box. Terms can be removed the same way (arrow left or backspace). I strongly feel that users should be encouraged to build long and specific search terms. Long terms are far more likely to result in quality responses in my experience.
4) Note that all aspects of Googles offering can be integrated in the Instant Search experience. I've noticed that the video, image and social aspects have dropped to the bottom of the results. My mockup allows them to become much more front and center.

*Do* be dense
Ultimately the Instant Search experience needs to become much more information dense. Sure "your mom" might not appreciate the color coding of the suggestions but it doesn't detract from her experience. Google needs to think much more holistically about Instant. Just getting any old crap faster is not an improvement regardless of how impressive it is, but getting the exact right result faster would be invaluable.

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