Could Google's search interface get any simpler? Google is testing a new service that aims to make common searches even easier – after discovering that many users are confused by its basic search page. The directory-style 'Google Navigator' service being trialled in China is simply a page full of the most common search phrases.
Confused users just click on the one they want.
“We discovered Google [search] has two substantially different kinds of user. One is the experienced search user – the basic Google interface is very suitable for them,” explains Google China public relations manager, Cui Jin.
“But we also have large numbers of another kind of user with extremely limited needs: 'mouse clickers'. They just want to type key words to go quickly to their favorite website, but they are often stuck in Google for a long time without finding what they want.”
For these less-experienced users Google Navigator offers a quick, but extremely limited, 'search'. “We don't think we should ignore our users' needs. And we think these kind of services will attract large numbers of users,” says Cui Jin.
Google lags far behind local rival Baidu in China's search market, and has been criticized for failing to adapt to meet local users' needs. In fact, Google's new service appears to a virtual clone of one already offered by Baidu.
Google arranges the links for the Navigator page based on their ranking in its search engine. At the top of the page are the most common search terms, including MSN, Yahoo Mail, the People's Daily newspaper, TV stations, and all of Google's Chinese competitors, such as Baidu, Sohu, Netease, and so on.
For the really confused, there's even a link to Google itself.
Google hopes to bring the service to other countries in future, according to information on the Google Navigator website.
As well as the direct links, a sidebar on the right side of the screen lists common categories. If clicked, these open up new pages with links to other websites. The topmost categories include blogs, novels and literature, desktop wallpapers, photos, pinups and humor.
The beta version of Google Navigator, or 'Dao Hang', as it is called in Chinese, does allow for some user customization. Different category sections can be repositioned with basic Ajax or Web 2.0 techniques. But even here, simplicity reigns. There's no potentially confusing drag and drop interface, just simple arrows that move a section up or down.
The extreme simplicity of Google's search interface has long been seen as one of its strongest points in the West. However, it seems that the open ended-nature of the search is actually confusing for some.
Western internet firms like eBay, Yahoo and Google have done relatively poorly in China and have been criticized for failing to adapt to the different requirements of Chinese web users.
In China, Google's standard interface is remarkably different from most of its competitors. Almost all popular Chinese web portals are crammed with an eye-popping array of short, densely-packed links. Some have more than 500 links on the extremely long main page, although a few appear to have reduced the numbers over the past year.
Among the popular sites, only Google-lookalike, Baidu, has a simple interface. Baidu leads Google by a substantial margin in China's search market, according to surveys.
Baidu already operates its own directory-style page, Hao123.com, which it acquired in 2004. Google's new Navigation service appears to be extremely similar to Hao123; in fact the positioning of the main sections is identical.
Update March 22: Another probable reason for Google to try a simplified search first in China is that typing Chinese is more complex than typing alphabetic languages like English. Users have to type multiple keystrokes to form a single character, and there are several totally different input systems in common use. (Thanks to user Joe Consumer for pointing out this omission - see his comment below)