Jun 162010

SERPs are getting crowded: Is there a Better User Experience?

The rise of universal search and real time results is, imho creating a crowded, confusing search results page.

No question that the smart folks at Google have tested performance and determined that mixing information results from Wikipedia, with shopping, with video, with images as well as the sponsored listings creates a better user experience than offering all of one type. Since people don't use the "news", "image", "video", etc links to do a more targeted search the "web" search results now offer a snippet of each type for many ambiguous searches.

Take the following search on "Les Paul" as an example.

Crowded SERP

Neither Google, nor God knows whether I'm really interested in biographical information about the man, music he performed, or the guitar that bears his name, so the web SERP contains a hodge-podge of potentially responsive web pages.

The trouble is: I don't get many options within each of those types. The engines can only show a small sample of each type because space is limited.

But is there a better way?

Probably not, I have to believe that someone much smarter than me would have made this work if it was truly viable, but I still can't get my mind off of it. It seems to me that finding what people want would be greatly expedited by simply asking for clarification when appropriate. And, it seems to me engines looking to knock Google off its perch may need to offer a truly different user experience if they're going to gain traction.

For example, instead of just a "go" button, why not ask users to guide the search a bit?

Search Engine UI

This also sets up intriguing possibilities for the sponsor listings. Online retailers would be happy to pay more for folks who clicked the "Online Stores" go button than any of the others. Local brick and mortar businesses and national chains might be willing to pay more for folks who clicked the "Local Business" or even the "information" go button. Indeed, one might wonder whether the engines would need to serve anything other than sponsored links for folks who have identified themselves as shopping for products or services.

By filtering out some of the traffic we don't want and segmenting bids by the quality of traffic obtained through each, efficiencies would improve leading to more advertising spend at the same ROI by each of those constituencies.

This could potentially be a win for all parties concerned including the user who gets more relevant results because the engine offer the courtesy of asking what type of results they wanted.

The more prominently placed "Anything" button might be the dominant choice of lazy users who can't be bothered to read the choices, but I wouldn't be surprised if a fair chunk of folks preferred to have these options.

Granted, I should never never never be allowed to do graphical design under any circumstances, but it does seem like someone more talented than I might find a user-friendly way to help us all better predict what people really seek when they type something in a search box.

Am I totally crazy?


19 Responses to "SERPs are getting crowded: Is there a Better User Experience?"
Jeff says:
This isn't a crazy idea at all! The links along the left sidebar on a typical Google SERP perform a similar function, but my guess is that they don't get a lot of use (or at least as much as they should.) I don't think that it would be unreasonable to ask for a bit more guidance from users on what they are searching for. While this would also make a lot of sense from the perspective of the advertiser, I wonder how the engines would see it. This kind of a move could concentrate advertisers around a smaller segment of queries that likely converts better. For Google, it could come down to a question of balancing available ad inventory against the incremental changes in CPCs and budgets they could expect from such a change.
Jeff, you're probably right on. There would be some traffic that folks don't want to buy, and whether the higher prices on the other traffic would offset that "loss" might cause them concern. It should more than offset the loss, but that assumes that paid search managers would bid rationally, which is certainly the case for some of us but certainly not for many. Google has a pretty low opinion of most bid management approaches and for good reason. As such, their fears of loss may not be irrational. There is also hubris involved, though. I've presented this idea to engineers at both Google and Bing and they've said: "We should be able to figure out their intent." I love the can-do spirit, but I think they're wrong.
David says:
While the idea is smart its not beneficial for their sponsored links as it doesn't seem in their interest to have to discount Local Business ads for an online store. If i can select to only buy my product terms on news searches its likely i would spend less money. I can see the value for your retail clients as it gives you a giant insight into the users intention but would the simplicty lead to dumbing down of search queries?
David, in principle local businesses would be willing to pay more for clicks on the "local business" go button than they are willing to pay for clicks on a generic "go" button. At the same time, the online pure plays would be willing to pay more for the "online store" clicks than they would for the generic clicks. It is possible that by pre-segmenting the traffic based on user intent, that Google would see higher CPCs across the board, because each constituency -- online stores, brick and mortar, news, etc -- would get higher quality traffic. I don't think it would make user's lazier, I think it would help them find what they're looking for faster with no extra effort on their part.
Ted Carroll says:
I would prefer Google to default to information only sites and have an option to look at other categories after the first search - and keep the SERPS page as uncluttered as possible. (But that might not fit the Google business model.) However, Usability studies that I am aware of have showed that the majority of users go straight to the results panel in the middle and ignore left and right panels - I know I do. So a more visible and usable method of filtering after the initial search - using the type of categories that you suggest - would seem a good idea.
I agree - it looks like Google, in becoming all things to all men, this maybe it's downfall. Think it should go back to its original rasion d'etre which was search - information and knowledge.
George you are talking about personal search, aren't you? In the next future they'll know everything about you (Privacy? What is privacy?:) and your problem will be solved "automagicamente" (Automaticly and in a magic way) :)
Thank you all for your fine commentary! The folks at Google are certainly ambitious and ambition leads some to bite off more than they can chew. Google just has so much talent and such a money making machine at their back I'm not sure if there are limits on what they can "chew." ABG: Always Bet on Google :-)
You have a really superb idea..and I don't think you're crazy. Why don't they do what you suggested. Search would really be much easier that way!
Its really a nice idea, but you have to keep in mind what search engines, Google, but also Bing, are doing right now. They are trying to grasp the user intent more and more. They want to give the right information as fast as possible. Don't forget that Google has personalized search now as a default running, which means in time they WILL know if you are looking for Les Paul's bio or music, based on your historical data. Local is an interesting topic in this too. If you know how to optimize your local search you can get loads and loads of traffic from it. Universal search also means local results can pop up ABOVE all the other results. Thus local businesses. This means its not as simple as placing some buttons below the searchbox. Google and Bing are a lot further in what and why they are doing than you know :). Still, its an interesting idea :)
Thanks for your comment, Bas. No doubt, the engines have gotten more sophisticated in their attempts to understand user intent, but they will never get to the point that they understand the user's intent better than the user does. Sometimes I search with shopping intent, sometimes seeking info, other times just goofing around. Studying my past behavior will reveal tendencies that can make the predictive modeling more accurate, but stats modeling is never 100% accurate. However, some of our analysts brought up other serious objections to my plan: namely toolbar searches and the use of the enter key rather than mousing. Anyhow, mobile may change the world in ways that make this desktop centric discussion seem quaint in a couple of years.
BonzaRos says:
Well I'm a week late leaving my two cents....here it is anyway. The new fangled SERPS don't bother me much even though it's getting too crowded. Options are there in the new navigation panel to filter your search.....What REALLY REALLY bothers me are the list of Directories that take up the organic real estate. To me it's very unfair to have small businesses trying to get a listing somewhere on the page. To be fair, there should be a seperate area for directory listings because SME's don't have a hope in hell of attracting enough links or to creating a massive amount of site pages. Most of the local directories are rubbish anyway.
George, I was just thinking about this issue, albeit from the angle of running user tests to have them eliminate what they don't like and see whether these universal results are really such a great user experience. I suspect we'd see a lot fewer universal results. But the real reason I'm commenting is because you're looking at this as a narrow issue. I propose a broader view. The battle for search marketing dollars. The more perceived risk in SEO [in general, since it's the overall impression that counts], the less budget it gets. The more PPC gets. That's the only plausible explanation on why ppc gets 85% of budgets for 15% of the clicks, and vice versa. Because SEO traffic isn't guaranteed. As SEO becomes more mainstream and some seo shops become better at it, larger businesses are logically according greater budget to SEO. It's a big picture play, imho. As to the refinements, it might generate higher revenue in some auctions, but on the whole it's better to muddy the bread-and-butter mid-tail keywords SEOs like to target.
Gab, I see your point. If the engines knew how to divine "commercial intent" and served only sponsored listings to those users, and only organic listings to those just looking for info it could degrade the importance of SEO. I don't think that's likely to happen, but I hear you. You may be right about budgets, but we've always argued against them. Companies should spend as much on paid search as they can within their economic targets. With respect to SEO the question is and should be: what's the return on investment of additional resources be they agencies, consultants or in-house staff. Like every other marketing activity, at some point companies reach a point where the returns on additional investment don't make sense. Regarding the 85/15 split you reference, you've got to put it in context. For firms that do offline marketing and have significant brick and mortar footprints, the vast majority of traffic to the site is driven by those activities, not paid search and not natural search either. So far in all the firms we've studied, I've yet to see a business that gets more traffic from competitive non-brand organic search than it does from competitive non-brand paid search -- usually paid is two or three times as large. Neither paid search agencies, nor natural search agencies deserve much credit for sales on an advertiser's trademark.


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