The best search engine related cartoon I’ve seen in a while is the one that accompanies an article entitled The Perfect Search Engine Interface. It takes a peek at a number of search pages to raise the question, “What is the perfect search engine interface?”
I remember someone asking on a some SEO thread earlier this week whether or not anyone thought that the look of a search engine played an important part in how often people used it. I didn’t get a chance to respond to the thread at the time, but I’d like to answer that here.
Is the visual interface of a search engine an important part of whether or not people will use the engine? Keep in mind that as large, and as dynamic a search engine is, it only displays a limited number of screens. A simple search, an advanced search, a preferences page, and the results of a search.
How simple or complex should those interfaces be?
To some degree, that’s going to depend upon the business objectives of the site. And the type of information that the provider of the search deems important for the searcher.
Does the search site act as a portal for other services? How are ads mixed into the presentation? If the site is a meta search engine, it’s going to show which other search engines each result came from, isn’t it?
Simplicity is great, but even it has some drawbacks. If you have a very simple interface, every element on the page has a greater weight than a page where there’s more to look at, and more to interact with.
What should we look at when we look at search engines?
Interestingly, one of the best views of the search engines that I came across was written by three Italian researchers who were looking at how easy or difficult it might be for blind users to find results on search engines.
I really found a couple of white papers by these (Italian) National Research Council members. One was submitted on Can I Find What I’m Looking For? (pdf) to the 2004 conference in New York City in May.
They have a similar paper online which appears to have been written for a conference on accessibility this year titled Accessibility and Usability of Search Engine Interfaces: Preliminary Testing (pdf).
While there’s overlap in the two articles, each of them raises a few points that the other doesn’t. The first is shorter, and focuses more upon search engine interfaces. The second looks more at accessibility for blind users. Both hint at a followup to the research, and I’m looking forward to it.
Here’s a brief summary of the features of the user interface that they compared in each:
* Arrangement of components
* Expressive power
* Number of elements
* Clustering of search results
What’s nice about that list is that it gives us a vocabulary to use when we compare search engines.
Another set of tools that the authors use are automatic accessibility validators. Only one search engine they studied passed the minimum level of accessibility as determined by the World Wide Web Consortium in their Web Content Accessibility Guidelines. Any guess as to which one?
They also make a great point about bringing those search engine pages into compliance. As big as the search sites are, and as dynamic as they get, they only really have those four screens we listed above; simple search, advanced search, preferences, and results.
I think if all of the engines strived to make their pages more accessible, they would all look a little better.
Does the look of a search engine influence your choice of whether or not to use it?