Thursday, 19 June 2008

Search Expermental

Search Engines are constantly working behind the scenes to develop and advance their algorithms to keep ahead of the game. But with so much value placed on brand integrity of the major players as well as traditional usability, it makes it difficult to thoroughly test new developments in the public domain.

Google Experimental allows users to sign up for features that are fully tested for accuracy but not ready for the prime time of the public domain yet. Whatever experiment a user signs up to, the Google search experience does not change, a user still knows they are using Google.

Within experimental at the moment are alternative search views that will display particular results in a relevant format (EG, date information displayed over a timeline), keyword suggestions and keyboard shortcuts to accelerate the search experience.

Once a particular feature graduates from Experimental, it can be tested on pockets of Google account holders. In the past I have been involved in experiments with navigation including left hand side, dropdowns and pagerank like bars to distinguish result volume. I was also involved in the sponsored links shading experiment.

Google also run Searchmash, an experimental search site with no direct reference to Google. Here they can conduct experiments on the user interface without tainting the existing Google brand and risking the value of it's valuable brand properties. Searchmash was also recently made available in a flash version which is slightly ironic considering Google's historical dislinking of any webpages containing flash.

Yahoo! run AlltheWeb as their user interface test engine. It was on AlltheWeb where Search Suggest was first trialled under the name of "Live Search". No prizes for guessing why they could not launch with that name!

Microsoft are perhaps the most adventurous when it comes to experimental search. It is no secret that there they have not had the intended growth from of traditional text search having failed to dent Google's market share. Resource is therefore diverted into researching and developing the next big thing in search.

Their experimental user interface, Tafiti is perhaps more extravegent than either of it's rivals. It takes advantage of Microsoft's new Silverlight technology to produce a more interactive visual search experience. These search results can also be viewed in a rotating tree view. Quite why, I am not sure.

Tafiti also offers a "Shelf" where users can store their searches on a particular subject. Again, I struggle to see the point in this feature. In my experience, users are comfortable using the browser navigation

They also have Ms. Dewey, a gimmick involving live flash movies with an enchanting female presenter who reacts to user searches. It's probably not your search engine of choice, but it's fun for a small period. Recently MSN have built upon the cult success of Ms. Dewey by launching Left vs Right, a site that satires aspects of the upcoming American presedential election.

Whilst experimental search is an exciting insight into the thinkings of the big three search networks, it is clear that small iterative changes are necessary in order to maintain stability of established and sizeable user bases. Google alone, reach over 90% of the online population, so they have to absolutely guarantee that any amendments to the interface do not have a detrimental effect.

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