Something's brewing in Mountain View. Google's geared up the SAR (Screwing Around Rate) of its results page to unprecedented levels. We have Google Instant, Place Search and Google Previews all rolling out in the last few months. And from around the blogosphere, there's rumors of testing that allows users to show 11 sponsored ads on top and also the telling switch of the label "Sponsored Links" to simply "Ads." So what do Google strategists have up their sleeves?
The recent changes at Google prompted me to dig out a research paper we wrote a few years ago called "Search Engine Results: 2010." In it, I interviewed Marissa Mayer along with a dream team of search pundits and usability experts. A lot of what we're seeing today was hinted at in those interviews.
For example, Mayer said: "If you imagine the results page, instead of being long and linear, and having ten results on the page that you can scroll through -- to having ten very heterogeneous results, where we show each of those results in a form that really suits their medium, and in a more condensed format. When you started seeing some diagrams, some video, some news, some charts, you might actually have a page that looks and feels more like an interactive encyclopedia."
Michael Ferguson, who was the UX lead at Ask, which had just rolled out Ask 3D (which, in hindsight, was well ahead of its time), went further: "There might be a time you might see people advertising and providing content not just on web pages and blogs etc. but with short discrete self-contained video answers and audio answers that come up either as sponsored or relevant content. So you might have a breaking down of search marketing that takes some of the things that have been learned like optimization and designing good text ads and seeing how that would work when you're delivering an audio 20 second pitch or delivering an audio content that drives traffic to your site."
There's a delicate balance that must be respected when you're combining the presentation of advertising and the way we search for information. As the results themselves become increasing rich and interactive, advertisers won't be very happy if the ads start to lag behind in terms of visual prominence. Mayer touched on this: "As you know, my theory is always that the ad should match the search results. So if you have text results, you have text ads, and if you have image results, you have image ads. So as the page becomes richer, the ads also need to become richer, just so that they look alive and match the page. That said, trust is a fundamental premise of search. Search is a learning activity."
It's this trust that makes the presentation of advertising a precarious proposition on the search results page. We're not there to find ads, we're there to find relevant information. If ads are highly relevant, we're receptive. If they're not, we'll skip over them. We accept ads not as ads, but as potential paths to relevant information.
This is an important distinction. If ads start to look too much like ads we start to skip over them. And that decision is made in milliseconds, before the relevance of the information that lies on the other side of the ad is even considered.
This phenomenon is called banner blindness. Jakob Nielsen explains: "If they put up display ads, then they will start training people to exhibit more banner blindness, which will also cause them to not look at other types of multimedia on the page. So as long as the page is very clean and the only ads are the text ads that are keyword driven, then I think that putting pictures and probably even videos on there actually work well. The problem of course is they are inherently a more two dimensional media form, and video is 3 dimensional, because it's two dimensional - graphic, and the third dimension is time, so they become more difficult to process in this linear type of scanned document 'down the page' type of pattern."
I believe that Google is now responding to the multi-screen search challenge. Search on a desktop needs to be different than search on a mobile device or on a tablet. Mayer's "encyclopedia" format makes sense here. But experimentation and the resulting change come at the potential price of alienating users.
Why have ads been the least changed part of the search page? It's certainly not because advertisers have been demanding that they remain as boring lines of text. It's because Google, along with Bing and Yahoo, are acutely aware of how important that trust is. The nature of our engagement with ads on a search page is far less straightforward than you might think. There's a lot of subtle psychology at play here. In the words of Hector Barbossa, "You're off the edge of the map now mate, and here there be monsters!"