Monday, May 21, 2007

Google's New SearchMash Test Site

Google's New SearchMash Test Site

Google's gained a new unbranded site called SearchMash where it plans to test user interface ideas without Google's brand somehow skewing the tests. Below, more about the site and comments from Google about it.

Currently, SearchMash allows you to perform a search and get web and image results presented side-by-side. It's similar to how A9 has long allowed side-by-side results, ironically a feature that A9 has made much harder to implement after a recent redesign over there.

Web results are presented in the main left-hand column after a search and seem ranked the same as at Google. Unlike Google, presentation is different. Results are numbered. Clicking on the URL line makes a box pop-up with options to:

  • open the listing in the current window
  • a new window
  • to see more pages from that web site
  • to find similar pages.

After the first ten results, there's a "more web pages" link at the bottom. Click on this, and you get another 10 results magically appearing on the same page, inserted below the first 10. You can keep going, adding 10 more results at a time.

It's pretty slick. Microsoft's Windows Live had a somewhat similar "infinite scroll" feature that allowed you to keep getting more and more results, as you went down the page. Unveiled in March, it was dropped in September for web results (it still works for image results) when Windows Live came out of beta, as Microsoft felt it slowed performance.

While A9 dropped so many features, "continuous scroll" is something it gained. Do a search there, and as you scroll down, more results keep magically appearing, 10 at a time.

Unique to SearchMash is the ability to drag-and-drop web search results. Click on the number next to any listing, and you can move that listing higher or lower in the search results. The number doesn't change after you move it. The feature also doesn't seem that useful. Far better would be a scratch pad-style feature such as Windows Live offers for image search. Being able to drag-and-drop web results into some type of collection area would be handy -- and it's something that Microsoft is promising.

Those are the features at the moment, which you can also find described on the site's features page. What you won't find is much about Google on the site. The About page doesn't mention them. You've got to go into the privacy page where you discover:

SearchMash is a website operated by Google Inc. The Google Privacy Policy describes how we treat personal information when you use our products and services, including information provided when you use SearchMash. In addition, the following describes our privacy practices that are specific to SearchMash.

So what's up with SearchMash. I fired some questions off to Google, and here's what I got:

Q. When did this go up from Google?

Very recently.

Q. Why are you doing it?

  • SearchMash is an experimental search site operated by Google. The goal of SearchMash is to test innovative user interfaces in order to continually improve the overall search experience for our users.
  • The site does not include Google branding to help us gather more objective data about user response to new interfaces.
  • There is no guarantee that the features tested on SearchMash will be seen on Google search. As with all of our experiments, one of the main factors we will consider is user response to the feature and how well it addresses their needs.
  • This site is only a test and has traffic limitations so may be unavailable at times.

Q. Why is it not on Google Labs?

Google Labs continues to be a great site for Google to launch new products that may not be ready for prime time yet, frequently and quickly. In this case, one of the important factors we wanted to address was the influence that may come from Google branding. Creating a separate site will help us gather more objective data about user response to new interfaces.

OK, next some follow-ups and speculation. First, how can a site that no one knows about be useful to Google? Pretty much no one heard of it until the past day. As best I can tell:

So the site's going to have plenty of visitors, but all the wrong type, people who are the influencers or tech-heads or early adopters that Google's not trying to test against.

Remember, Google's been doing a lot of testing over the past year or so. Barry Schwartz just noted yet another sidebar navigation experiment yesterday. The experiments became so frequent and much discussed that I was begging Google in March to provide more official notice about what they were doing. Google's response to me was that announcing the experiments would skew the results.

Still, with everyone watching them so closely, experiments were quickly noted by the blogging community. That may have helped Google decide in April to blog itself about how it tries to test things against small groups. It even illustrated some of its experiments.

Now SearchMash gives Google an experimental playground, one similar to how AllTheWeb is supposed to operate for Yahoo, though aside from LiveSearch being launched there in May, Yahoo's not done much with AllTheWeb.

Google can play with weird stuff at SearchMash without worrying about "normal" users having the Google brand set up expectations. But how do those normals (or "mundanes" for you Babylon 5 fans) get to the site? From Google:

We have various methods for driving traffic to search and UI experiments that we run but we don't share details regarding the methodology to help keep the results as objective as possible.

A couple of guesses here. Google is likely (or will be likely) to divert people to the site in various ways, such as perhaps if someone uses an AdSense For Search box on a content site. It might simply push some people trying to reach Google to SearchMash (perhaps with some interstitial page warning them beforehand). It also gives them a site to put before controlled focus groups, where they might not know Google is behind it.

What about the skewing that will happen now that early adopters and the Google-obsessed will be all over SearchMash? They can be filtered out. If Google is directing certain groups to the site in various ways, it can then filter studies of user behavior to just those groups.

OK, one last thing. What about the idea that SearchMash will be the new place for Google to allow people to create custom search engines of their own, similar to Yahoo Search Builder launched last month or the older Rollyo or Eurekster Swicki services?

Garett Rogers last week wondered if the IndexBench trademark Google applied for recently was a sign that Google was planning custom vertical search engines. Now he wonders if SearchMash will instead be the place for this, after Google Operating System highlighted a Time Magazine article confirm that Google plans this:

Marissa Mayer, who manages search products, says the company has assigned more engineers to search than ever before and plans to release a new search tool that will enable users to design and build their own flavor of Google search, scanning just the sites they're interested in.

So yes, custom vertical searches are coming, likely more substantial and customizable than the long-standing Site-Flavored Google Search that's been out since 2004 and recently upgraded this year. But Google wouldn't say if it will be on SearchMash or not. So wait, watch and see.

Finally, the feel of SearchMash to A9 in many ways is uncanny. As I noted in my Amazon's A9 Becomes, Well, Sort Of Nothing post earlier today, A9 was an experimental playground for Amazon that seems to have lost its way after it lost its CEO Udi Manber to Google. I haven't heard back from Google on whether Manber is now running SearchMash. But seeing the side-by-side results that were a hallmark of A9, plus the infinite scroll similar to what A9 just rolled out (and what may have been in the works before Manber left A9), it sure feels like he's running a new playground search engine -- this time for Google.


buzz this