About two years ago, I wrote an article called Why Search Sucks & You Won’t Fix It The Way You Think. In it, I explained various ways people have tried to make search "visual" and why those have largely failed. That’s mainly because "list view" or "10 blue links" still works for lots of search activities. But visual search has picked up some attention recently with new players coming in. Is visual search the future, where we’ll be flying through our results Minority Report-style? Maybe in several years, but for now, I still see a lot of eye candy and no real breakthroughs.
I looked at Searchme, Viewzi, and PicLens, all of which have been reviewed recently in various places. For each, I purposely went into them without reading any of the help information. As a result, I might be missing out on some cool features or capabilities they have. But then again, so too are the typical people these services hope to attract. No one is reading how to search at Google. Even fewer than no one will read how to use these places.
At Searchme, when you enter a search query, immediately below the search box, categories appear. The exact categories change depending on what you search for. For example, for dvd player, these options show up:
- luggage & bags
- business news
Selecting one of the category icons, rather than doing a general "All" search, narrows your results to pages deemed to be relevant to that category. This is both cool and weird. Luggage as a "dvd player" category? It turns out that the results coming back by doing this, showing DVD player cases, were indeed interesting. But DVD players narrowed by the Martial Arts category? Not so compelling!
More importantly, most people probably won’t use these options. There’s a long history of users ignoring links like these around the search box, which tends to be like a black hole that sucks users in.
How about the main attraction, the "visual" search results:
Sure, they look cool. But as is often the case, "cool" doesn’t mean useful. The screenshots of each page are fairly hard to read — in some cases, impossible to do so. That means you’re having to judge whether a site matches what you want almost entirely based on what it looks like. Consider how "useful" this is for Sears:
OK, you can get a description for each page if you know to hover your mouse over it. One will appear at the bottom of the image. But that leads to another flaw. Which is easier — to quickly scan 10 textual descriptions or to painfully click-click-click your way through a screenshot at a time?
The "stacks" feature is pretty neat. You can drag any screenshot to the top left of the page, where you can make a collection of search results. Of course, Microsoft offers this for image search. And they even have it on their own "visual" site, Tafiti. Plus, over the years, we’ve had other search engines offer a drag-and-collect feature for web search. It still hasn’t taken off. I do think it’s a great idea, and it would be nice to see it come to places like Google. But Searchme Stacks is hardly a killer feature.
At Searchme, you can also narrow searches to just video or images. Here, the visual display is more compelling. But still, I think it’s easier for the searcher to review a lot of pages at once using the "old school" listing model.
Searchme is also slow. It takes noticeably longer to get back results than on a major search engine, and there’s no great payoff for that wait. The Flash-based service also crashed my Firefox 3 setup once. OK, Firefox 3 is new, and I’m not using the final release candidate. Nevertheless, none of the major search engines, including Google, have crashed it once.
Like Searchme, Viewzi is slower than a regular search engine. Even worse, after doing my DVD player search and waiting for a response, when it came, I then had to decide what "view" I wanted to see:
The screenshot above only shows a slice of the many "views" that are out there. Working through them was somewhat overwhelming for me, and I write about search all the time. A typical person hitting this page is being asked to decide if they want:
- Video: Blinkx, Veoh, YouTube
- Site Information: Alexa, Delicious, Google, Summize
- 3D Photo Cloud: Flickr
4 Source: Ask, Google, Yahoo, & Microsoft MSN Live Search
- and more…
Assuming you figure out the choice to make, it gets worse. Consider if I just want to see the results of the four major search engines at once:
You don’t know much of anything about what’s showing up. After studying the page (something a typical user isn’t going to do), I realize that the first result in the top left corner is showing up because it is listed on all four major search engines (thus the "stacked" look to icon, a page for each of the search engines it is on). But the purpose of also showing the lower row? Plus, I kept having a problem where if you click, sometimes I’d get a larger preview of a page but other times I’d be jumped out to it. This is a user interface nightmare.
Maybe if I were to dig further into some of the "views," I’d find an example of a compelling reason for this display. Something like Album View (check it out for The Weepies) is intriguing. Viewzi might have more success if it focused on a few particular views where visual display is really useful. But right now, it’s just a search engine relying on visual gimmick that people don’t need.
Quick history lesson. How many search engines have been successful by requiring people to download software before they can search? Zero. That’s bad news for PicLens, since it assumes it can swim against the tide.
Let’s assume you do download PicLens. The next mystery is figuring out how it works. I fired it up on Firefox, then after Firefox restarted, I was clueless what to do next. Remember — I’m being a typical user who doesn’t read the help files.
Eventually I noticed a new icon next to the Firefox search box in the top right-hand corner. Clicking on that caused an entire new window to appear, sort of freaking me out.
I ended up having to go to the demo page to better understand how the tool worked — which to me is a failure on the search usability side.
PicLens probably produces the "prettiest" visual results of any of the tools I’ve covered. But again, I couldn’t see how doing a "visual" search for "DVD player" on Amazon using PicLens increased the search experience. Rather, it just slowed things down.
Save Me From The Future
Clearly, I wasn’t impressed with the visual offerings. It’s not that I don’t like cool things. It’s just that there should be a reason to display things visually. It shouldn’t just be an excuse to look different. Moreover, text IS visual — and the textual display metaphor continues to be used largely because it does work. But for particular types of searches, a more graphical display can make sense. Tying local search to maps is a classic example of this.
I am looking forward to a more visual search future — but don’t make me fly through results unless it helps me to do so!