Though it made its name as a search engine, Google has grown to be much more. With services such as Gmail, YouTube, Google News, Google Maps, and Google Base you can now spend most of your time online under the Google.com domain if you so choose. Slowly but surely, Google has become a true web portal.
There’s an irony to that, because when the Google guys first hit the scene, the company was adamant about its focus on search. At a time when Yahoo, MSN, and all the me-too portals were crowding their pages with links to web mail, chat rooms, and dozens of banner ads, Google became famous for its minimalist home page.
The lean, advertisement-free home page said much about Google’s philosophy. The message was clear: “We’re focused on search and nothing will corrupt the purity of our search engine.”
But as Google expanded into more areas, the spare design of its home page actually became a problem. How do you make people aware of all your services while keeping the home page uncluttered?
Google first tried to solve this problem through OneBox, a set of links that displayed news, stock quotes, and other links above the normal search results for relevant queries. OneBox results were drawn from Google verticals like Google News and Google Finance, and they were kept separate from organic search results.
Unfortunately for Google, OneBox was not especially effective. Usability studies showed that searchers often ignored these links precisely because they looked different from the normal search results.
If supplemental search results don’t work, what is the alternative?
Enter Google Universal Search, which embeds results from Google’s verticals directly into its organic search results. Search for “Iraq War” and you will see the top result from Google News mixed in with the search results.
As a means of driving traffic to Google’s verticals, Universal Search is elegantly simple. But it also begs the question of whether Google has compromised its principles. By mixing results from its own properties with organic results, has Google placed its corporate interests above the purity of its search results?
To be fair, why should Google treat its own verticals any different from other web properties? Yahoo’s Flickr files sometimes show up in Google organic results, so why should YouTube or Google’s Picasa be treated any differently?
The problem is that results drawn from Google’s verticals at times may be inferior to those found in its organic results.
Consider searches for “Dallas heart surgeon,” “Pittsburgh hotels,” “Boston bank,” and most other queries containing a city name. These searches mix the top three results from Google Maps into the organic results, usually in the first three positions.
Unfortunately, the biggest factor influencing a ranking in Google Maps is a business’s proximity to the search location (as identified by Google Maps). Results for “Dallas heart surgeon,” for example, lean heavily toward surgeons located in downtown Dallas, despite the fact that as a large metro area, Dallas has a number of major medical centers scattered throughout the city limits.
By inserting these listings into organic search, has Google really improved the quality of its results? Do Google Maps results really deserve to take up 30% of page one results?
Only time – and feedback from users – will tell. Universal Search could well create pressure for Google to improve its verticals, or create an opportunity for other search engines to gain ground.
At the very least, Universal Search shows how hard it can be for a company to grow while remaining true to its founding principles.