Today, without planning to, I visited the Google home page, then also Yahoo and Bing. They don’t look like each other at all. I think, first of all, that Yahoo is the past, Google the present, Bing the future. And second, that it doesn’t matter much.

There are probably many young people, young Web designers even, who don’t know why Google’s default home page is so stark and empty. I was around for the first generation of search engines — built one of ’em myself — and it went like this:

The first couple of generations had ugly, amateurish-looking front pages. Then a few of us did IPOs and had real money and wanted to build a business model. We understood that the answer had to be based on advertising, so the more visits we got, the more ads we’d be able to sell. A lot of people concluded, wrongly as it turned out, that you needed to be “sticky”, keep users from leaving your site.

So the search engines morphed themselves into “portals”, offering news and weather and stock prices and sports results and any other random thing that someone thought might be interesting. The pages became sprawling and complex and overdesigned, with the increasingly-small search space surrounded by a herd of subsystems pleading in a hundred pathetic voices: “Please, please, don’t go away.”

Google proved that approach wrong, by offering lean, mean, fast search and sending you on your way, no muss no fuss. As Dave Winer memorably put it: “If you want people to come back, send them away.” This behavior aligned with the link-rich grain of the Web and, well, we all know the history.

Yahoo, Sigh · Yahoo still hasn’t got it. Take moment and drop by their front page. The front center features a short list of news stories, each carefully pitched to raise suspense, ask a provocative question, and get you to click on the story to find out the answer. In other words: “Please, please, don’t go away.”

Google · As of today (in January 2010), when I type www.google.com into the address bar, I get this achingly-blank screen: the logo, the search window, the two buttons, an aid-for-Haiti plug (good on ya, Google), and that’s it. As soon as I move my mouse I get a little bit of personalization and Google-product links. It’s not exactly ugly, but there are precious few concessions to design sensibility.

On the other hand, click on the “iGoogle” link and you’re into portal territory, and for me it’s pretty lame; the weather in Happy, TX?!? Plus a bit of dumbed-down gmail and a Quote-of-the-Day. And the cookie is now set: www.google.com now takes you to iGoogle unless you explicitly go back to “Classic Home”. I wonder if that’s smart?

Bing · I like bing.com. It’s not trying to portal me, but it uses a little bit of (gasp) color to make things easy on the eye and puts a nice picture in the background, with cool little mouse-overs that invite you to waste a couple of minutes poking around. There’s some extra stuff around the edges, but it’s friendly and whimsical and just hops to one customized Bing search or another. There’s no desperation in the tone.

The search results aren’t quite as slick as Google’s to my eye, but they’re still quite OK and competitive. In the long run, I just can’t see Google sticking with the brute white emptiness, now that everyone has forgotten how and why it got that way, not to mention Yahoo being pathetically irrelevant.

Why It Doesn’t Matter · So, who goes to a search engine any more? Searches these days are done from little windows in your browser and emailer and feed reader and chat client, and Google outbids everyone for the right to get the queries, and monetizes the queries so efficiently that they have the bucks to outbid everyone; a nicely-closed loop.

Thus, it’s not as if the relative merit and lameness of the home pages of Yahoo, Google, and Bing actually mean much. But it’s still fun to think about the differences.



Contributions

Comment feed for ongoing:Comments feed

From: Hanan Cohen (Jan 20 2010, at 00:57)

I see one thing missing all the time when people write about Google and the history of search - AND vs. OR

I think Google was the first search engine to AND the search terms instead of OR-ing them.

It is related to the concept of the design you describe here in that it gave people the results they were looking for instead of telling them "we can give you lots of results".

Now, AND is the default.

[link]

From: JulesLt (Jan 20 2010, at 01:37)

My other half, on the other hand, still has her home page set to Yahoo - for some people the portal approach works. (Particularly people who never used RSS readers prior to Yahoo and Google implementing web based ones).

And we shouldn't forget that Facebook is also a portal model, as well as a closed garden.

So while I agree that it was the wrong design for a search engine, I think there is still room for web portals, and lots of room to improve them.

[link]

From: Fabian Ritzmann (Jan 20 2010, at 03:48)

I always considered Google to be competing with Altavista rather than Yahoo. The big advantage Google had over Altavista in the early days was that it would load in seconds rather than minutes because it did not have image ads. I still consider that an advantage since I am doing a lot of searching on my cell phone these days.

[link]

From: Kevin H (Jan 20 2010, at 08:30)

Although Bing doesn't have the cookie feature of iGoogle, it does have the equivalent partner site, in http://www.msn.com/

I know quite a few people who choose sites like msn.com as their home page, but like you said, they still use browser-integrated search (through Google) instead of that Bing box sitting there at the top of their home page.

[link]

From: Charles Oliver Nutter (Jan 20 2010, at 08:33)

I might agree if Bing's results weren't so bloody awful. My usual test: a vanity search for "Charles Oliver Nutter".

Google brings up as the first result my blog, as it should--it's my most public, most important internet face. They also include links to several key articles. Secondary results include conference appearances, interviews, social site profiles, and so on.

And what does Bing bring up? The first result is my FaceBook profile. Seriously? And it gets worse...the second result is from the IJTC conference I was at in 2008. In fact, my blog doesn't show up in *any* result until...wait for it...the THIRD PAGE, with a post I wrote in 2007 about the then-new JVM Languages Google Group, which is hardly the most interesting, popular, or relevant post.

Bigtime fail.

[link]

From: Sam (Jan 20 2010, at 09:41)

You should really be comparing apples to apples. People that have set yahoo.com as their start page do it because of the content there. You don't want content, so don't use that page. Instead use search.yahoo.com if you want a more googly experience. What I think is odd about this post is that I don't know why anyone would ever set google.com or bing.com as their homepage with search being in the chrome/location box. I'd sooner use about:blank.

[link]

From: bruno coelho (Jan 20 2010, at 10:03)

well... I don't want a search engine to poke around. I need it slick and clean so I can find what I'm looking for.

I still think that what matters are the result and what you can do with them in the results page.

also what they (search engines) can do with the results: present ads, sort them, etc, etc. the first gives them money, the second makes me happy when I use it.

the results page is the most important for the same reason you say that it doesn't matter the homepage: nowadays you only see the results page and that's what tells them apart for you, that's what make you come back.

so yes, the homepage is less important but saying that Bing is the future is a long shot!

[link]

From: Leon Breedt (Jan 20 2010, at 10:12)

I only visit google.com directly when I'm testing internet connectivity.

All other times, its Ctrl+E, query text, Enter :)

[link]

From: Mike Ivanov (Jan 20 2010, at 12:41)

Yahoo assumes people come there in a pursuit of some weird kind of "fun". Just look at their icons.

That's wrong. When results of your work (and consequently your own life) depend on effectiveness of your searches, you don't want all that "fun" stuff, neither you want to "poke around". In this sense bing.com is not a very good *tool*. It is less distracting than Yahoo, but is still distracting.

[link]

From: mike bradshaw (Jan 20 2010, at 13:20)

another reason for the "sparse" home page was that when Google first came out, mot of the Internet was one dial-up so having a super light home page was a real bonus.

And now, once again as the lower bandwidths and congestion start to take effect, having a super simple, light weight page is a real bonus (it can load much faster!)

[link]

From: Scott Johnson (Jan 20 2010, at 13:35)

OK, I'll admit that Bing's look is pleasant. It's quite nice, in 2010, to finally see some design sensibility in a search engine website. But I never use those homepages. I exclusively search from the browser's search bar these days.

[link]

From: Gordon Haff (Jan 20 2010, at 14:16)

Tim,

I agree with your ultimate thought that "it may not matter." And, indeed, I'd probably argue that what people want in a portal (that is, something they'd set their home page to) is different from what they want in a search engine. If one were to take away the search toolbars in every modern browser, the discussion might be different but none of us ever have much reason to go to a search engine's home web page.

Most people set a portal of some sort to their home page. This may be an explicit portal like Yahoo or it may be an information source of some other sort; I tend to use boston.com. If I had to go to a web page to do searches I'd probably make a search engine my home page (and I agree that bing is probably the nicest for that purpose)--but I don't.

[link]

From: Matt Laird (Jan 20 2010, at 15:44)

I must concur with others saying part of Google's minimalist motivation was speed. Back when Google hit the scene internet connections for most people involved a lot of hissing from a little box plugged in to the phone line.

Also, for content providers bits were expensive, and the less bits you had to push the lower your costs (and more money for snacks and other goodies of the dot-com era).

Actually I recall at one staff meeting back at antarcti.ca you telling us to think Google when designing the site, minimalist. I also recall how every piece of data pushed out the wire was crunched down to the point style sheets and javascript were unreadable by a human, just to get pages to load that much faster and shave a few kb from each load.

How things have changed and we waste bytes. These days when I look at bandwidth usage reports I don't even flinch at multi-hundred GB numbers. I still like clean and light for web design.

[link]

From: W^L+ (Jan 20 2010, at 19:16)

Until my mom and people like her stop going directly to the Google and Yahoo sites, this will remain very relevant.

Many users never even look at the search box on their browsers. They go to their search engine directly. As a deskside support person, I often suggest using the search box, but most of my users soon return to the search engine's home page.

The exception is Yahoo! With their most recent redesign, the site is too jiggly, with things moving and covering up the page, so even people who long frequented the Y! home page are avoiding it.

Bing's background images and white on gray text make it hard to read. Since their results are still only third best (until #2 Y! retires their own engine and starts serving Bing results), it isn't worth going there.

Currently, I'm using Google and DuckDuckGo. DDG's results are partly derived from Yahoo and Bing, so I get the benefits of the #2 and #3 (as measured by quality of results) engines without their difficult to use home pages. Yes, I often go directly to the DDG site, even though they are in my search box. Why? I prefer to obtain Google's results through the search box.

[link]

From: Brad Smith (Jan 21 2010, at 09:04)

I know many people that when I tell them to go to, for example, amazon.com, will open a browser, then go to google, and then type in amazon.com in the search bar.

For these people, Google is their entry point to the web. Much like AOL was for a past generation.

Brad

[link]

From: Elaine Nelson (Jan 22 2010, at 09:36)

I get the impression that Yahoo has basically given up the idea of being a search engine, and now they are a news/lifestyle site. I got pitched on display advertising with Yahoo at work recently, and the sales people breezed past search directly to display ads news, classifieds, email, etc.

As for the iGoogle, it's something of a fun toy IMHO, in the MySpace spirit: playing around with doodads. It's awkward & a little ugly, but fills that need to cover the front of your spiral-bound notebook with stickers, so to speak.

And I'm always amused at people who go to a search engine and then type the full URL into the box. There must be a lot of them, too... [myemployer].com and www.[myemployer].com are the 4th and 7th most popular search terms for our site, respectively. I don't know if general understanding of how browsers work or how search engines work has really improved all that much.

[link]

From: D. Head (Jan 29 2010, at 23:15)

What about Ask.com? They have a nice home page, good results, and, something other sites don't have (no, not a partnership with NASCAR)... traffic stats for certain sites. Of course, I don't necessary see how relevant stats are to a search.

Ask.com can also function as a portal, without ramming that portal look and feel down your throat.

They do try to <frame> you in when browsing search results, though this can be removed if you desire.

Plus, searching for "Charles Nutter" returns his blog as the first result.

And no, I do not work for Ask or its parent company.

PS They have a partnership with Opera yet their search results page is very jumpy when scrolling in Opera.

[link]

author · Dad · software · colophon · rights
picture of the day
January 19, 2010
· The World (112 fragments)
· · Life Online (267 more)
· Technology (81 fragments)
· · Web (388 more)

By .

I am an employee
of Amazon.com, but
the opinions expressed here
are my own, and no other party
necessarily agrees with them.

A full disclosure of my
professional interests is
on the author page.