Google’s well-deserved reputation for delivering relevant search results encourages millions of users to visit the search engine whenever they want to find something on the Web. Nevertheless, when I compare the major search engines, I can’t help imagining their respective home pages, and seeing a more immediately noticeable difference between them. Google greets visitors to its home page with a far less cluttered interface. Yahoo’s and MSN’s home pages are so cluttered that it is hard to imagine them fitting even one more item in with the rest.
In contrast, Google’s interface takes up so little room that most users do not need to scroll down to see the entire page. I say “most users” only because I have never used Google from a mobile device, so I can’t speak from experience. This clean, Spartan-looking home page encourages visitors to simply perform their searches and get on with what they want to do online. It may not be “sticky” in the usual sense, but it gets the job done, and it has differentiated Google from nearly every other search engine since it first appeared on the Web.
I mention all this so that you will understand why a new feature that appeared in Google Labs in late May strikes a number of observers as quite a departure. Simply labeled “Personalize Your Homepage,” it allows users to change what they see when they visit the search engine. Users can add stock market figures, weather, and a variety of other items to their personal view of Google’s interface. With this feature, in other words, you can make the Google home page look more like an Internet portal –- or more like Yahoo and MSN.
Why is Google doing this? The company made its name with one of the sparest interfaces on the Internet. Does it make sense to mess with something that works? In this case, it quite possibly does. But before I get into that, let’s take a look at how the new feature works.
Clicking on the appropriate link in Google Labs takes you to an example of what your new Google home page could look like. It is still a very clean interface. In the example, the custom items sit below the Google interface itself in a rectangle that takes up a little less than half of the page. In the upper right hand corner you will find a link to “Classic Home,” which returns you to the default appearance of Google’s home page. At the top of the rectangle is a link that encourages you to “Get started personalizing your Google homepage.” When you click on that link, Google takes you to a page that gives you twelve items from which to choose. You can click any or all of them. Displayed in colorful text, they include:
- Stock Market
- New York Times
- BBC News
- Google News
- Wired News
- Driving Directions
- Quote of the Day
- Word of the Day
Clicking on “Gmail” pops up a message which states that you must have a Gmail account to preview messages. A drop-down menu lets you set this item to preview anywhere between one and nine messages, with five as the default. Clicking on “Stock Market” gives you a choice of Dow, Nasdaq, NYSE, and S&P 500; all four of these options are checked by default, but can be unchecked. Google also gives you the option of adding your own stock ticker.
Clicking on “New York Times,” “BBC News,” “Google News,” “Wired News,” or “Slashdot” turns up a drop-down item that lets you set how many stories you see from these sources. As with Gmail, you can choose any amount between one and nine, but in this case, three is the default. If you click on “Weather” or “Movies,” a pop up box appears, in which you can enter your zip code. For “Quote of the day,” the familiar one-to-nine drop-down box appears, this time with one as the default. Clicking on “Driving Directions” or “Word of the Day” does not do anything immediately obvious.
After you have finished deciding what you want on your personalized home page, simply click on one of the two very obvious buttons labeled “Save personalization.” If you chose to preview Gmail messages, and you are not logged in, Google will ask you to log in at this time. After you log in, Google immediately takes you to the new page you created. If you don’t like the way the items are positioned, you can easily drag and drop them to different spots. You can also edit individual items, changing the defaults and other information you entered earlier.
If you want to perform some wholesale changes, you can click on the link at the very bottom labeled “Further personalize your Google homepage.” This link takes you back to the original screen you used to personalize your homepage, with all of the values you set filled in. Making changes is as simple as setting it up in the first place.
Google has set up a group for people who have personalized their Google homepage and want to talk about it. The company does not do this for everything in Google Labs. As of this writing, the group has more than 4000 members, and is apparently pretty active. Those who join this group can choose to read it in four different ways: online (no email, checked by default); abridged email (no more than one email per day); digest email (up to 25 messages bundled in one email, and no more than two emails per day); or regular email (about 71 emails per day).
As you would expect with those numbers, the forum is full of comments from users. Many people who are using a personalized form of Google’s homepage offer useful suggestions here, along with praise for coming up with the new feature. Even complaints about apparent bugs seem to be given in the form of constructive criticism, for the most part. The forum does include a few ads, placed discreetly on the right hand side of the page; just below the ads are “Related Pages,” which link to Google-related news items.
This ability to personalize a search engine’s interface, and the huge number of suggestions from members of the personalization group as to how it could be usefully personalized, made me wonder how the other search engines handle this. If Google is trying to let users make a personal page that looks more like Yahoo or MSN, can Yahoo or MSN’s search pages be made to look more like Google’s? I knew that Yahoo and MSN offer tools that let users personalize their home pages, so I decided to perform a little experiment.
I visited the Yahoo home page to see whether its interface could be cleaned up via personalization to look more like Google’s. I had not visited Yahoo in a while, so I was somewhat surprised to see a link right below the search box, with the text “Yahoo! Search –- When you just want to search, use search.yahoo.com. Try it now.” Clicking on this link brought up an interface that could be the twin brother of the classic Google interface. As for MSN, I already knew how to clean up that particular interface, since I wrote a story about the changes it made to its search engine. Pointing my browser to http://search.msn.com/ brought me to a very clean, spare page. Again, it resembles the classic version of Google’s home page, but not as much as Yahoo’s Yahoo! Search page. It boasts more of a Microsoft theme, which is only to be expected.
It is worth keeping in mind that this feature is only available if you sign up for it. If you’re not signed in, or if you click on the “Classic Google” link, you see Google’s traditional vanilla interface. That said, why is Google altering something that has worked for years and so typifies the search engine in many people’s minds?
According to Marissa Mayer, Google’s director of consumer products, the company believes it has developed a “critical mass” of features that visitors can use to get helpful information. It is not an attempt by Google to make the site more “sticky.” “We are still interested in getting people off our site to the places that they want to go (online),” Mayer was quoted as saying in an Associated Press story.
That approach has worked so far, but Google may need to change it to go further. For April 2005, research firm comScore Media Matrix rated Google the fourth most visited site on the Web, with 78.6 million unique visitors. That sounds good, but look at the competition: number one was Yahoo (116.3 million), two was the Time Warner Network, which includes AOL (115.8 million), and three was MSN/Microsoft (111.5 million). One of the clear differences between Google and the other three sites is the interface; the others look much more like Internet portals, where a visitor can choose from a variety of presumably useful information.
Keep in mind that Google’s profits come not directly from search itself, but from advertising. Google makes money when users click on the advertising links displayed on its site. It makes a smaller amount of money from ads it delivers to hundreds of other websites. This gives Google a huge financial incentive to increase its unique visitor figures. It is typical of Google that the company is not simply offering users an interface that looks more like Yahoo’s, but letting them personalize the home page so that it delivers exactly what they want –- no more and no less. Many people like the new feature, even though there is clearly room for improvement (after all, it is still in beta). It will be interesting to see what personalization options become available once this feature graduates from Google Labs.