Jakob Nielsen On Search Usability

Just Behave - A Column From Search Engine Land
I’m currently working on a column (series?) for Just Behave where we’ll explore what the search results page might look like in the year 2010. As part of that I sent out invitations to a number of my contacts in the usability world, including Marissa Mayer (Google), Michael Ferguson (Ask), Larry Cornett (Yahoo!), Justin Osmer (Microsoft) and Mr. Usability himself, Jakob Nielsen.

Jakob was actually the first to respond and as often happens when two people who are interested in user experience start chatting, we went a little bit off topic. Because I haven’t been able to get all the interviews done that I wanted to regarding the search results page in 2010, I’m going to push that back a little bit, but I thought it would be quite interesting to look at some of the topics that Jakob and I discussed in the interview. We touched on everything from universal search results to personalization and scanning of search results in other cultures, like China. As always Jakob has a strongly held view on most of these topics and always provides a refreshing perspective on user behavior.

Search circa 2010

First of all, regarding what search may look like in 2010 Jakob doesn’t hold out much hope for any significant changes in the next three years.

Jakob: I don’t think there will be that big a change because 3 years is not that long a time. I think if you look back three years at 2004, there was not really that much difference from what there is today. I think if you look back ten years there still isn’t that much difference. I actually just took a look at some old screen shots in preparation before this call at some various search engines like Infoseek and Excite and those guys that were around at that time, and Google’s Beta release, and the truth is that they were pretty similar to what we have today as well. The main difference, the main innovation seems to have been to abandon banner ads, which we all know now really do not work, and replace them with the text ads, and of course that effected the appearance of the page. And of course now the text ads are driven by the key words, but in terms of the appearance of the page, they have been very static, very similar for 10 years. I think that’s quite likely to continue.

We don’t necessarily agree on this point. For myself, I see more change in the actual look of the results page in the last six months that I have in the last several years. Personally I feel we’re at a turning point in search and we’re likely to see an increased pace of innovation in the actual interface within the next three years. However Jakob did see change in three reasonably significant areas. First of all he saw a change in the actual relevancy algorithm itself.

Nielsen’s three possible changes in the SERP

Jakob: Of course the big thing that has happened in the last 10 years was a change from an information retrieval oriented relevance ranking to being more of a popularity relevance ranking. And I think we can see a change maybe being more of a usefulness relevance ranking. I think there is a tendency now for a lot of not very useful results to be dredged up that happen to be very popular, like Wikipedia and various blogs. They’re not going to be very useful or substantial to people who are trying to solve problems. So I think that with counting links and all of that, there may be a change and we may go into a more behavioral judgment as to which sites actually solve people’s problems, and they will tend to be more highly ranked.

Nielsen feels fairly confident that significant moves in prioritization will happen in the next 10 years. He’s less bullish on actual changes to the results page layout.

Jakob: There could be small changes, there could be big changes. I don’t think big changes. The small changes are, potentially, a change from the one dimensional linear layout to more of a two dimensional layout with different types of information, presented in different parts of the page so you could have more of a newspaper metaphor in terms of the layout. I’m not sure if that’s going to happen. It’s a huge dominant user behavior to scan a linear list and so this attempt to put other things on the side, to tamper with the true layout, the true design of the page, to move from it being just a list, it’s going to be difficult, but I think it’s a possibility. There’s a lot of things, types of information that the search engines are sort of crunching on, and one approach is to unify them all into one list based on it’s best guess as to relevance or importance or whatever, and that is what I think is most likely to happen. But it could also be that they decide to split it up, and say, well, out here to the right well put shopping results, and out here to the left we’ll put news results, and down here at the bottom we’ll put pictures, and so forth, and I think that’s a probability.

So, in speculating about what the future might hold, Jakob seems to think the safer bet is the Google model of mixing universal results into a basically linear presentation rather then Ask’s 3-D search model. In fact, in typical Jakob Nielsen fashion, he wasn’t shy about expressing his opinions on Ask’s recent 3-D labeling.

Gord: Ask is experimenting with right now with their 3D search. They’re actually breaking it up into 3 columns, and using the right rail and the left rail to show non-web based results.

Jakob: Exactly, except I really want to say that it’s 2 dimensional, it’s not 3 dimensional.

Gord: But that’s what they’re calling it.

Jakob: Yes I know, but that’s a stupid word. I don’t want to give them any credit for that. It’s 2 dimensional, It’s evolutionary in the sense that search results have been 1 dimensional, which is linear, which is just scroll down the page, and so potentially 2 dimensional, they can call it three but it is two, that is the big step, doing something differently and that may take off and more search engines may do that if it turns out to work well. But I think it’s more likely that they will work on ways on integrating all these different sources into a linear list. But those are two alternative possibilities, and it depends on how well they are able to produce a single sorted list of all these different data sources. Can they really guess people’s intent that well?

This led us directly in to talking about personalization and what impact that may have on the search user experience:

Jakob: All this talk about personalization, that is incredibly hard to do. Partly because it’s not just personalization, based on a user model which is hard enough already. You have to guess that this person prefers this style of content and so on. But furthermore, you have to guess as to what this person’s “in this minute” interest is and that is almost impossible to do. I’m not too optimistic on the ability to do that.

If personalization is in fact going to change the search user experience, Nielsen foresees that being more of a “self-serve” experience.

Jakob: In many ways I think the web provides self personalization, you know, self service personalization. I show you my navigational scheme of things you can do on my site and you pick the one you want today, and the job of the web designer is to, first of all, design choices that adequately meet common user needs, and secondly, simply explain these choices so people can make the right ones for them. And that’s what most sites do very poorly. Both of those two steps are done very poorly on most corporate websites. But when it’s done well, that leads to people being able to click—click and they have what they want, because they know what they want, and its very difficult for the computer to guess what they want in this minute.

So, if search moves to giving the user more navigation options that would allow them to choose their own personal path, what level of functionality will be put in the hands of the user?

Jakob: The third one (possible change with search) is to add more tools to the search interface to provide query reformulation and query refinement options. I’m also very skeptical about this, because this has been tried a lot of times and it has always failed. If you go back and look at old screen shots…of all of the different search engines that have been out there over the last 15 years or so, there have been a lot of attempts to do things like this. I think Microsoft had one thing where you could prioritize one thing more, prioritize another thing more. There was another slider paradigm. I know that Infoseek, many, many years ago, had alternative query terms you could do just one click and you could search on them, which was very simple. Yet most people didn’t even do that. People are basically lazy, and this makes sense. The basic information foraging theory, which is, I think, the one theory that basically explains why the web is the way it is, says that people want to expend minimal effort to gain their benefits. And this is an evolutionary point that has come about because the people, or the creatures who don’t exert themselves, are the ones most likely to survive when there are bad times or a crisis of some kind. So people are inherently lazy and don’t want to exert themselves. Picking from a set of choices is one of the least effortful interaction styles which is why this point and click interaction in general seems to work very well. Where as tweaking sliders, operating pull down menus and all that stuff, that is just more work.

Search banner blindness?

One other area that we covered was what happens to advertising when the search results page becomes more cluttered. As we start to introduce results including images and video, how do ads fight for attention on the same page? Knowing Jakob Nielsen, you knew the words “Banner blindness” would come up at some point in the conversation and sure enough they surfaced quickly and repeatedly.

Jakob: If they put up display ads, then they will start training people to exhibit more banner blindness, which will also cause them to not look at other types of multimedia on the page. So as long as the page is very clean and the only ads are the text ads that are keyword driven, then I think that putting pictures and probably even videos on there actually work well. The problem of course is inherently a more two dimensional media form, and video is 3 dimensional, because it’s two dimensional—graphic, and the third dimension is time, so they become more difficult to process in this linear type of scanned document “down the page” type of pattern. But, on the other hand, people can process images faster, with just one fixation and you can “grok” a lot of what’s in an image, so I think that if they can keep the pages clean, then it will be incorporated in peoples scanning pattern a little bit more. “Oh this can give me a quick idea of what this is all about and what type of information I can expect”. This of course assumes as well one more thing, which is that they can actually select good pictures.

If it starts becoming that there are too many images, then we start seeing the obstacle course behavior. People scan around the images, as they do on a lot of corporate websites, where the images tend to be stock photos of glamor models that are irrelevant to what the user’s there for. And then people involve behavior where they look around the images, which is very contrary to first principals of perceptual psychology type of predicting, which would be that the images would be attractive. Images turn out to be repelling if people start feeling like they are irrelevant. It’s a similar effect to banner blindness. If there’s any type of design element that people start perceiving as being irrelevant to their needs, then they will start to avoid that design element.

Whether you agree with all Nielsen’s points are not, his insights are always educational. As usual I’ve posted the full transcript script of the interview on my blog if you’re interested.

Gord Hotchkiss is CEO of Enquiro, a search marketing firm that produces search engine user eye tracking studies and other research. The Just Behave column appears Fridays at Search Engine Land.

Opinions expressed in this article are those of the guest author and not necessarily Search Engine Land. Staff authors are listed here.

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