Monday, March 13, 2006

Erik Selberg on the future of search

Erik Selberg (creator of Metacrawler, UW CS PhD, now one of the brains behind MSN Search) has an interesting post up about Google, Yahoo, and MSN's strategies toward web search.

Erik starts by taking issue with my earlier post, "Different visions of the future of search", where I summarized Google, Yahoo, and MSN's strategies by saying:
MSN wants to give you more powerful tools. Yahoo wants the community of users to help improve search. Google wants computers to do all the work to get you what you need.
Erik says I got it wrong. From his post:
Yahoo is going down the content ownership path. The idea is to own the content -- whether it be licensed ... [or] their customers ... create content ... However, you have a huge cold-start problem ... and a huge spam problem.

Google and Microsoft have generally the same idea, although Microsoft has been slow to coming around to it. The old saying is that a computer will give you what you ask for, not what you want. Both Google and Microsoft are trying to give you what you want, not what you ask for.

The difference is in approach. Google, like some other companies like Apple, are fans of making things easy. How do you make things easy? Remove choice ... The Google homepage is a model for simplicity ... There's a big search box, and not much else. Hard to do something besides enter a query ...

Microsoft wants to make its products useful. And how do you make a product useful? It's all about features. That's why is just chock-full of random features, such as RSS feeds and weather and all the other normal portal goodies.

Greg got things a bit wrong in his article ... [MSN] isn't about changing what users do, but providing them with what they need to get their job done. If a simple search box will suffice, great. But sometimes other things are better suited, and Microsoft is looking at how to provide those as well.

Great thing for you? Search is gonna get better... much, much, much better. And you're all going to benefit. Gotta love it.
Erik is saying that both Google and MSN want to make the computer do the work for you. The difference, Erik says, is that Google does this by taking away features and MSN will do it by adding features.

I see his point, but I can't help but think of other Microsoft products. What happened to Microsoft Word as features were added for convenience? It became a complicated mess, so feature rich that even a technogeek like me doesn't know or understand all the features. When I use MS Word, I spend most of my effort ignoring its features so I can get work done. The effort required to exploit its power exceeds the value received.

Erik is optimistic that MSN Search will not go this route. I hope he's right. As usability guru Jakob Nielsen said:
Simplicity is rule #1 for usability ... Fewer features means that those features that do remain in the design will automatically be easier to understand because there are fewer other features to compete for the user's attention.
It is not easy to add features and power without overwhelming your users.

Erik is a sharp guy. As one of the key people working on MSN Search, his thoughts on MSN and the future of search are well worth reading. I only have a few excerpts of his post here. Don't miss reading his whole post.

See also my previous posts, "Customization in Windows Live Search" and "Personalized search at PC Forum".

Update: If you enjoyed this and want to hear more, Robert Scoble did a one hour video interview with Erik Selberg back in October 2005.

Update: Erik adds some more thoughts in a second post.


Anonymous said...

But the thing is google does provide additional tools for users: advanced search, Q&A, define, google suggest, my search history and so on. The difference in google's approach is that they don't push this in your face - if you are a power searcher most likely you know about them.

So MS is pushing these features in front of you, but haven't other search engines tried this before? And haven't other experiments with doing that showed most users usually don't take advantage of them?

The thing with MS though is that they usually have a way of making all the extra features in the software and apps look sexy.

okilee said...

I dont agree with Erik Selberg. Maybe I misunderstood him.

He talks about features. What about "Google Homepage"? It is easy way to customize Google and put information that you want on your homepage.

Lots of features can although be simple!

Anonymous said...

"or"'s writes:

So MS is pushing these features in front of you, but haven't other search engines tried this before? And haven't other experiments with doing that showed most users usually don't take advantage of them?

I know that is the conventional wisdom.. that search users are lazy and won't use the features if you give 'em to them. But as I too-verbosely argued with Greg a few days ago, that's not always true. Google had a spelling-correction feature that most users did not use. It was only when Google "forced" the feature on people, by putting an explicit link to it in a place where people were likely to see it and be thinking about it, that people actually started using it. And use it they did: Google claims that when that feature was "forced" on people, their traffic literally doubled! That means the feature was being used, on average, once for every Google search issued.

That seems to contradict the conventional wisdom, and suggests that users really do use a feature when you offer them the choice.

What I really would like to see is a real-world study of this stuff. "Or", are you aware of any published papers or journal articles talking about this? Greg, how about you? I'm serious here.. have there ever been any large scale experiments where a search engine offers features, tries different ways of offering them, etc. And finds that no way works?

I guess I'm just not convinced by conventional wisdom or "oh yeah we tried that and it didn't work" anecdotes. Because in my own experience as a user, I either (1) have not seen any search engine actually offer all these features, and (2) when they do offer them, anything from Google's spelling correction to Altavista's query expansion to Vivisimo's clustering, I have and do actually use those features. Regularly.

So yeah, if anyone knows of a link to an actual study, please post it.

Anonymous said...

Jeremy, I can't answer your question, since I also asked it(though admittedly I tend to have accepted the conventional wisdom on it)

But wouldn't you agree Jeremy, that even when google offered that spelling link it was done in a way that made it seem like part of the search experience. It did not *feel* like an extra feature or like its being forced on the user; it more felt like part of the search process (like the engine is guiding the user). One box results sorts of feel the same.

The difference with what I'm hearing from microsoft, unless I misunderstand, is adding extra, rich features like in a desktop software. The ajax features in Windows Live Search kind of shows that approach. Many users will have to *take time to learn* the benefit those features. Can that work? Maybe, I just don't know.

Anonymous said...

Or: Yes, I would very much agree that the spelling link was added in a way that was integral to the search experience. That is a very good thing. I argued a few days ago that any useful search widget must operate in this manner.

But I am not convinced that what MS is proposing contradicts this. Yes, I don't use most of the rich features you get from the desktop experience, as Greg says. But the ones I do use appear in the context that I need to use them. Think of those right-click menus. They don't pop up every single feature available. They pop up only those features that are appropriate to the situation. It is extremely useful when I want to save, left-justify, enlarge, or whatever, some object. I use those those features, in context, all the time.

I have no particular love for M$. I'm just saying that I buy their argument more than I do the one coming out of Google. I do think that Google tries to hard to do everything for you, and doesn't really offer you much choice. I would rather have a search engine, any search engine, that popped up the contextually-correct set of widgets at the appropriate time, and let me make modifications to my search intentions, as necessary.