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Stephen Logan

How Important is Design and Layout for Search Engines?

7th May 2010 News, Industry News 3 minutes to read

Google’s attempt at improving search experience through a series of small design tweaks and the inclusion of a left-hand navigation has been met with a largely lukewarm reception. Now Yahoo are getting in on the act with plans to promote their revised home page in a multi-million dollar advertising campaign; so how import is the design of a search engine?

Google and Yahoo are two very different search engines. The Google philosophy has always been to keep design simple and ensure that it makes the path from search query to click through as swift as possible. This accounts for the barely changing standard homepage and regular updates to search classification, including the speed of returned searches with Caffeine.

Yahoo Promoting Dynamic Homepage

Yahoo on the other hand is more of an informational hub. Their homepage has always been core to their search aspirations. News, sport and finance have been ever present on the main landing page for visitors; in many ways this has been what has defined their services and maintained the stickiness of the site.

Last year Yahoo gave their homepage a major overhaul [see: Yahoo Readying New Dynamic Front Page]. These changes included customisable features, allowing the integration of chosen features and feeds to the personalised page. It is this, along with their hugely popular aforementioned sports and news coverage that form the backbone of their proposed $75million television campaign [see: How Relevant Are Homepages to the Web’s Future? | WebProNews].

Google Introduce Left-Hand Nav

Just yesterday we announced how Google were in the process of rolling out one of their more radical changes to the Google SERP [see: The Changing Anatomy of a Google Search Page]. This included the addition of a left-hand navigation, something both Yahoo and Bing already included to some extent [see: ‘Minimalist, whimsical’ Google search given Bing-like overhaul | The Register]. But despite this major change, the core simplicity of the fundamental service that they provide remains.

Of course there are those who would draw a comparison between iGoogle and Yahoo’s interactive front page. Google import information from all of your favourite feeds, including news sources, reader and social media sites. Whether they are the same, similar or polar opposites can be debated endlessly, but Google have catered for this ‘jack of all trades’ personalised page away from their primary domain.

Returning to the question posed, just how important is design to a search engine? Well, in the case of Yahoo, it is verging on vital. They rely almost entirely on people using the site as an automatic go-to. Visitors might come for their sport, to read emails or to catch up on their social media updates, but might stay and take in some of the other content, perhaps even perform a search or two.

Differing Focus of Yahoo and Google

Google is more of a funnel. The home page is simply an entry point; it has little or no stickiness, just providing a portal for visitors to pass from one place to another. The search engine result pages though are quite different. Here they have to present the results in the most user-friendly fashion; after all, not everybody is looking for the same thing.

With their latest update, Google have given prominence to their search options. The inclusion of what is effectively a third column though has changed the aesthetic of the page. This in turn has drawn criticism from some users and online commentators [see: Google’s New Search Bar: An Unwelcome Change | PC World]. But whilst Google users might not be universally happy, is there any real alternative?

Impact of Negative Reaction

Over 90% of searches here in the UK are conducted on Google. Will that figure be affected by the addition of a left-hand navigation? Regular users looking to go elsewhere could find that the alternatives aren’t all that much better, with all three of the major search engines all featuring a form of left-hand nav.

Whilst Yahoo’s feature-rich homepage is clearly seen as an asset, the simplicity of Google’s design means that changes are scrutinised heavily. Will the three-column SERP become standard? Does the left-hand nav need to offer more if it is going to justify its inclusion? If so, what is needed?

You might well have an opinion on these questions, if so please comment below. Also, do you think promotion of their homepage features can help rejuvenate Yahoo? Is Google’s new design too distracting and does it detract from organic searches? Is design really that important for search? After all, aren’t we just trying to find the best information in the quickest possible time?

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