The User Experience Interviews Recap: Search Strategies Compared

For the past three weeks we’ve let members of usability teams from Google, Yahoo and Microsoft talk about a user experiences on their respective sites. Today, I’d like to point out what was interesting in each of these three interviews.

In talking to each of them, I couldn’t help but notice the pervasiveness of the underlying philosophy, or current situation, with each of the engines. Each conversation seemed to take on its own tone that reflected the forces that drove the engine in question. This is particularly interesting when talking to usability people because ultimately, it’s the user experience that will define the success of the engine. It’s here where the balance between monetization and user satisfaction must be maintained. And this has consistently been a challenge in the world of search. What does that search results page look like? What makes it into that Golden Triangle real estate? What falls above the fold, and what is relegated to below the fold?

When I started down this path I did so because we noticed a significant difference in the user experience in our eye tracking study. Small things, like the type of fonts used, where bolding occurred, how white space is used, how dark was the background screens, and the presence of hairline dividers between sections of the page all seemed, collectively, to make a significant difference to the user. The fundamental question that arose from our study was, “why did Yahoo and Microsoft users find what they were looking for faster on Google?”

Ultimately, it’s the market share battle that has to be won before monetization can occur. This is one of those truths that’s so simple, the implications of it are often overlooked. Obviously, this just makes common sense. And yet, somehow, the amount of dedication to this basic principle is not apparent to the same extent across all three properties. There is a tangible difference in how Google’s Marissa Mayer spoke about relevance and how Yahoo’s Larry Cornett spoke about relevance. And it’s in this core approach to the user experience where the answer, I believe, to Google’s success with the user lives.

This week, what I’ll review each of the three conversations and draw attention to what I felt was interesting and significant in each of them. I’d also like to talk a little bit about what wasn’t said, or what I inferred from each of the conversations. If you can start to patch together the underlying philosophy, or in some cases, the underlying reality, you can begin to see where each of these engines may be taking search in the future. After all, these are the people that will be determining what the future of search will look like.

The Balance Between User Experience and Monetization

At Google, relevance is a religion. The Golden Triangle is sacred. Nothing can appear here if it’s not, in Google’s judgment, absolutely relevant to the user. Both Yahoo and Microsoft said similar things, but in each case, the importance of relevance was always counterbalanced with other factors. At Google, relevance is the only thing that mattered. Everything else took a backseat to it. There is finally tuned intuition about what the user is looking for that makes itself apparent on Google search results page.

So, why is this? To truly understand how significant this focus on user relevance is, one has to understand the forces at play currently in the search engine world. Every visit to a results page is an opportunity to generate revenue. Each click is a chance to make money. And when we’re talking revenue opportunities, core search represents the lion’s share. So the temptation to push the sponsored advertising to the top of the page is tremendous.

The top of the page equals the prime real estate on a search results page. It’s the territory that every eyeball traces a path through. But, and this is vital to remember, from the user’s perspective you travel through this territory to find the most relevant results for your query. And for most users, at most times, we expect to find that relevance in the top organic results. A relevant sponsored result may catch our attention on the way, but the fact remains that the preferred destination is the number one organic link. So with every search, there comes a balancing act. Monetization opportunities balance against the user’s expectations of where relevance can be found.

Now, let’s look from the internal perspective to the organization at what influences what appears in that top of page real estate. On one side you have the entire organization, including the sales force, the accounting department, and a pack of Wall Street analysts, all looking for the engine to hit its quarterly revenue numbers. And they’re all looking in one place: how do we monetize more search traffic? The obvious answer is to increase the likelihood of each individual user clicking on a sponsored listing by moving that sponsored listing to where more of them are looking. That is a tremendous amount of pressure. On the other side, you have the user experience team, a handful of people that are the user’s champion within the organization. Do you get the feeling that the odds are stacked somewhat on sponsored side of the table?

In each of the three engines, the battle between these opposing forces plays out a little differently. And to find the reasons why this is true, you have to look at the underlying philosophies and the current situation of the organization itself.

Yahoo’s Balancing Act

Let’s start with Yahoo. Yahoo has had a tough year. And when organizations go through tough years, it’s difficult to resist the urge to monetize as much traffic as you possibly can. The cries of “more revenue, more revenue!” are impossible to turn a deaf ear to. Of all the three interviews, the one with Larry Cornett had the most mentions of the advertiser. Whenever we talk about user experience, it came with the caveat of balancing it against the other stakeholder in the process, the Yahoo advertiser. Although each, was couched in terms that implied balance between the two factors, the fact that the advertiser was included at all in a conversation about user experience points to the tremendous importance the monetization holds in Yahoo at the current time. I got the distinct impression, both from my conversation with Larry and from our study on how users interacted with Yahoo’s results page, that the urge to monetize is winning the battle at Yahoo. Yahoo was by far the most aggressive both in terms of how often top sponsored ads were shown, and how much really it was devoted to them. The majority of the Golden triangle real estate was reserved for monetization opportunities. Relevance, at least in terms of the user’s expectation, was pushed down the page.

Google’s Relevancy Obsession

In my conversation with Marissa Mayer at Google, the approach to this balance was completely different. There was no talk about balancing user experience against monetization opportunities. There was no discussion about the ecosystem that included both advertisers and users. It was all about relevance, defined on the user’s terms. Whatever appeared at the top of the page had to be the result most relevant to the user.

So, why is the user winning the battle at Google? Here are two reasons:

Google is making scads of money.

Google has the market share, so they’re getting the lion’s share of search budgets. They’re consistently meeting Wall Street expectations and they’re keeping the wolf from the door. The calls for “more revenue, more revenue” are noticeably quieter at Googleplex.

Larry Page and Sergey Brin.

To me the active involvement of the two founders are the single biggest reason why users still win the battle at Google. The people who are responsible for redefining relevance in Web search are still at the helm. Algorithmic relevance remains sacred from the highest levels of Google right down to the frontline engineers, because the founders have remained actively engaged in the day-to-day operations. The balance of power is tipped in favor of the user, because Larry and Sergey insist on it. The importance of top of page relevance is embedded in the core purpose of Google and in everything it does. It drives everything else. User relevance comes first, everything else, including monetization, comes after.

Microsoft: Getting in the Game

Microsoft is in a bit different place. When you look at the revenue channels that Microsoft currently has available, search is but a small part of the total picture. Not to say the monetization is not important at Microsoft, but it’s not vital, as it is at Yahoo. Microsoft has more latitude to maintain that balance. At the time of the study the biggest challenge for Microsoft was in tweaking the basics of their search results page to improve the user experience. They were still getting it right. This process has since continued and a lot of that tweaking can be seen in the current version of Windows Live Search.

But the religion that is relevance at Google is not found to the same extent at Microsoft. Microsoft is a huge and diverse corporation with many strategic objectives, one of which is search. Relevance does not define the core purpose of Microsoft, as it does at Google. Microsoft approaches the user experience as one of a number of best practices. The single-minded devotion and dedication to the relevancy of the user experience that typifies Google’s approach to search is not found to the same extent at Microsoft. It’s not that relevance isn’t important at Microsoft. It’s just that it’s treated more as a business objective than a sacred cow.

When we look at the difference between the engines, as they currently exist, I believe its Google’s obsession with relevance that makes the difference. Relevance drives a better user experience, which drives market share, which drives monetization. Google seems to have the best understanding of this basic cause-and-effect relationship in the search marketing ecosystem.

What the Future Holds

The other interesting point of distinction between the engines that came out of the interviews were their plans for the future of search.

Google: Personalized Relevancy

Google continues to try to provide the best relevance, as defined by the individual. For this reason, it’s not surprising that Google is heading the push towards greater personalization of search results. It’s an essential next step to reach the ultimate objective, which is to give their user exactly what they’re looking for at any given time. It will be interesting to watch how successful Google is in defining individual relevance. The current algorithms provide on one side of the equation. They do a reasonably good job of categorizing and prioritizing all the available content that exists on the web. The challenge now for Google: Can they do just as good a job of disambiguating the user’s intent to connect them with that content? Will they be able to take the signals that they’re currently watching, such as an individual search history, and build the algorithms required to properly distill the intent from the data that’s available to them?

Marissa dropped some other clues about possible future paths Google may pursue to achieve this goal. Contextual relevance provides another signal. As Google gains more footholds at the desktop level, they have more opportunities to pull contextual relevance from the task you’re currently working on. For example, if you’re composing an e-mail using G-mail, Google has the opportunity to scan the text of what you’re working on and use this as yet another signal in disambiguating intent. Also, with Google’s desktop search, the current contents of your hard drive could provide another rich data source to help interpret your intent and learn more about you.

Yahoo: The Power of Community

While Google sees themselves as a collection of tools to be utilized by the user, Yahoo sees themselves as the online extension of community, to be participated in by the user. And this key philosophical differentiator could provide a clue to where Yahoo Search goes in the future. Expect Yahoo to be the major search player that experiments with social search most aggressively. This aligns well with their strategy of offering diverse properties that engage the user and can keep them involved with the total Yahoo experience. Although search plays a vital role in that, it’s just one user touch point.

Expect Yahoo to start exploring ways to thread those individual user experiences together with search as the common element. They’ll look for ways in which Yahoo’s community can help enhance the search experience and provide social context to it. How this will be accomplished as a little cloudy at this point. Larry Cornett kept pointing to Yahoo Answers as the current embodiment of social search at Yahoo.

Will Yahoo become the more human face of search? Whereas Google puts their faith in mathematical algorithms, Yahoo seems to prefer to use real live human beings to differentiate their search experience. The challenge here, of course, is that hardware and algorithms are scalable, humans aren’t.

The biggest challenge facing Yahoo, however, is in once again tipping the scale in favor of the user. Yahoo has to pay strict attention to the quality of the user experience, and let this drive the layout of the search page, rather than the need to monetize as much traffic as possible. Whatever path Yahoo chooses to pursue into the future, they have to let their users guide the way, not their advertisers.

Microsoft: In a Position to be Bold?

Justin Osmer from Microsoft also mentioned personalization as a likely path for Live Search in the near future. Microsoft’s approach to the future of search seems to be the most fragmented of all the three major players. They’re attacking the problem on several different fronts at once. When we speak of user experience, its likely better to look at what Microsoft is doing in the areas of the image search, mapping and local search as an indicator of where they could take their core search product. I would expect Microsoft to start using the vast amount of data that’s available to them in the form of click stream behavior across all their properties, and begin to use this not only as an advertising targeting opportunity, but also to help improve the relevance of search results. From this, further personalization is the logical next step.

My advice for Microsoft, however, would be the same as it was for Yahoo. Let your search user drive the process. Right now most of the innovation I see rolling out of Microsoft is focused at the development of their ad management platform, not their core search product. Microsoft is in the unique position of being able to be bolder than Yahoo and Google in driving innovation on the search results page. They’re not dependent on this revenue channel to the same extent that either Google or Yahoo is. There is risk involved but potentially there are also great rewards. Justin mentioned that their first priority was to create a search experience that was, at the very least, on par with Yahoo and Google. Fair enough. But now is the time to leapfrog ahead with some bold moves and to redefine the paradigm of Web Search. If you win more users, you will get more advertisers, no matter what ad management platform you offer.

It was unique opportunity to be able to interview user experience representatives from each of the three major engines. It’s a conversation I definitely plan on continuing in the future, as each of them defines their own search experience online. I believe 2007 will be a year of significant change in online search. You’ll start to see more differentiation amongst the three players and they will start to break the current paradigm of a text based query and a standard page of results.

Gord Hotchkiss is CEO of Enquiro, a search marketing firm that produces search engine user eye tracking studies and other research. The Just Behave column appears Fridays at Search Engine Land.

Opinions expressed in the article are those of the guest author and not necessarily Search Engine Land.

Related Topics: Channel: Content | Search & Usability

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About The Author: is CEO of Enquiro, a search marketing firm that produces search engine user eye tracking studies and other research.

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