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Will The SERP Be Reinvented?

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The search engine results page (SERP) has been largely the same for the past decade. But Google’s foray into Universal Search and Ask.com’s recent unleashing of 3D search have people wondering if we’re in for a new era, a new look.

Enquiro’s Gord Hotchkiss chatted with usability guru Jakob Nielsen about this very topic and the result is a long, doubtful, and somewhat dry exposition on the future of the SERP. I’ve suffered through it just for you to find the highlights. You can thank me later.

Just a little kidding, there.

Nielsen is famous for his preference for simplicity and leaving well-enough alone, arguing that it serves the end-user better. So asking him about how much a Web interface will or should change, seems a bit, well, counterproductive. Forecasting requires a little optimism, even wild idealism at times, neither of which seem to be Nielsen’s strong suit.

Regardless, he has a lot to say on the matter, and I think he may be right about much of it, especially since Gord’s questions centered on what happens within the next three years. Nielsen think reinventing the SERP is like reinventing the wheel.

 A Behavioral Shift

In the past decade, SERPs have switched from "an information retrieval oriented relevance ranking" to "a popularity relevance ranking," with a strong dependency on the number of links a source gets.

"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," he said and, in my imagination, wiped his eye with his middle finger.

"…. 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."

Personal Problems

Many have said that personalization will solve relevancy problems in the future, with each individual user dictating what kind of results he or she wants to a learning machine. Nielsen doesn’t think that will happen within this decade, or even the next.

"All this stuff..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.

And as for relying on people to tweak an engine to their preferences to make them better, Nielsen harkens back to sliders and other modifiers of search engine past that required too much work on the user side.

"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."

Agreed. People are lazy, selfish little monkeys.  (The above is taken a little out of context, so be sure, if you’re interested, in reading all of Nielsen’s statement about evolutionary development and the role of laziness in it.)

Navigating the Obstacle Course

One of the favorite difference people like to cite for Google’s success is its clean, simple interface. Text advertisements are a testament to this as well, as the problem of "banner blindness" was largely eradicated in the SERPs.

Hotchkiss mentions Marissa Mayer’s rather spooky avoidance of the question about whether banner ads would be reinstituted at Google. But we’ll be optimistic and assume that won’t happen.  

But we wonder, if images and videos and news and clutter start showing up on Google’s clean interface, will another instance of banner blindness occur. Only if they’re deemed irrelevant, says Nielsen.

"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."

Will The SERP Be Reinvented?
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