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Google Moves Left to Navigational Search Facets
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Posted On May 13, 2010
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Matt Cutts, a Google software engineer, stated recently that "we tend to make a change to our core search algorithms at least once a day." Yet for all that change behind the scenes, much of the Google interface that the public sees changes only very gradually and after a great deal of user testing. However, last week Google rolled out a major set of changes to search engine results pages and several smaller changes to its appearance. Left-hand navigational search facets are now turned on by default.

As Marissa Mayer (vice president of search products & user experience) writes in the blog post announcing the change, "Today's metamorphosis responds to the increasing richness of the web and the increasing power of search - revealing search tools on the left and updating the visual look and feel throughout. While we are constantly rolling out small changes and updates, today's changes showcase the latest evolutions in our search technology."

Google has been testing the new interface for months-at least as far back as Nov. 2009-rolling it out to a fraction of its users and evaluating how it has been used. The faceted searching options and limits that had previously been available to users who clicked on the "Show options" link are now always displayed in the left margin. The design is a bit different and not all the options show up right away. The left panel is typically divided into three sections:

1.      Databases

2.      Search Tools

3.      Alternate Suggestions

Of course, Google does not label the categories under those names. The databases section, now with a colorful little logo for each database is just listed under the heading of "Everything." Depending on the query some of the other Google databases such as Images or Books may appear underneath that followed by a "More" link that opens up the full list of linked databases. At this point, only nine of Google's databases will show up here: Blogs, Books, Discussions, Images, Maps, News, Shopping, Updates, and Videos. Other Google databases such as Scholar and Groups are not listed in the left panel but only in the top "more" drop-down menu. How many database links show up in the left panel depend on the query; however, once a searcher clicks the "More" link at the bottom to show all nine databases, they remain displayed on subsequent searches, and the order changes depending on the search terms.

The search tools section also displays just a few links by default, depending on the query. To see all the options, searchers need to click "More search tools." The heading at the top varies as well. For a narrow search, it may just be "Show search tools," while for other searches, one of the section headings such as "Any time," "All results," or "Standard view" may appear with one or two of the search options. According to Google spokesperson Nate Tyler, "There are three types of tools in that part of the left panel: Normal, date, and country/language (visible outside U.S. English). At most, we will show 3 normal tools, at most 2 date tools, and as many country/language tools as we feel are applicable." As with the databases section, expand to the full set of search tools and all will stay open on subsequent searches.

As Tyler notes, some search facets depend on the country or language version of Google being used. Previously, many country versions had an option beneath the main search box to limit to "Pages from" that country. Those options are gone and now show up as one more facet to choose in the left panel after a search is run rather than a limit that can be applied before the search.

The third left pane option for alternate suggestions is also country specific. It does not (yet) appear to be displayed in international versions of Google. This new "Something different" section only shows up at Google.com and only for some searches. More than just related searches, these alternate search suggestions are more likely to be words or phrases for topics within a similar group but that do not include the query words. For example, a search on "blue" gives "Something different" suggestions for five other colors. A search on "library of congress" produces suggestions such as white house, smithsonian, and oclc. This feature is built on technology developed for the Google Labs project Google Squared.

Going directly to some other Google databases will show a similar faceted left pane: Images, Videos, Shopping, Books, and Blogs. Others Google database have more of the old-style left hand facets: News and Finance. Still others have no left hand pane or even an option for such faceted searching: Scholar, Groups, and Directory.

On the visual side, the Google logo has changed, losing its drop shadow. The color palette was adjusted. Jon Wiley, senior user experience designer, blogs that "The new logo is lighter, brighter and simpler. . . . we lightened up the footer at the bottom of the page by removing the blue shading and the underlines on the links, lightening the color, and expanding the search box." Other visual changes include attaching the search button directly to the search box and moving the estimated number of results from the right to just below the search box.

With all these changes, it is not much of a surprise that some features are lost. Search terms used to show up after the estimated number of results but are now gone. Single word queries would also link to a dictionary definition. That is gone. The advanced search page has lost the links at the bottom to "Topic-specific search engines from Google." The "View Customizations" message that previously alerted searchers to when the ranking had been personalized is no longer visible. Tyler reports that "The view customizations link is still there. It is now located at the bottom of the page below the search box." Your mileage may vary. Tyler sent me a screen shot of what they see at Google (see screen); however, neither I nor any of several other people I checked with could get it to display. It may be that, as Chris Sherman, executive editor of Search Engine Land says, "The new interface doesn't seem to be working on all cylinders yet." If and when it does show up there more consistently, it will be even harder to notice when the results have been personalized, since fewer people scroll all the way to the bottom of the page.

One additional facet added shortly after the new interface launched is a search tool under the "Standard results" section: "Sites with images." That facet will limit the search results to pages that have a fair number of images on the page. The results page starts with a collection of results from Google's Image database. Then it displays regular website results, limited to those deemed to have a sufficient quantity of images, and has a line of thumbnails images from each page.

Some searchers are complaining about the new look and all of the changes, but overall there seems to be less hue and cry about these changes than there was about SearchWiki (launched in Dec. 2008 and retired in March 2010). Google has no plans to let searchers opt out of the new look. Whether or not it will last longer than SearchWiki or will go through more substantial changes remains to be seen. In the meantime, the left-hand pane of facet options should foster much more use of these powerful search features.


Greg R. Notess is the internet columnist for ONLINE and the author of Teaching Web Search Skills (www.notess.com/teaching) and SearchEngineShowdown.com.

Email Greg R. Notess
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