A Tale of Two Searches

The Web has changed us.

Our patience and buying habits have been forever altered by our experience with Amazon and online commerce.

Our attention spans have been weakened by social media and easy web browsing.

And even how we seek out information has been impacted by how we use search engines.

Search technology serves as the backbone of our modern Web experience. The Internet is a vast collection of information and without search, we’d have no way of making use of it. This isn’t limited to just using Google and Bing (or even DuckDuckGo). Search bars can be found on Netflix, Yelp, Facebook, and likely many of the other sites you visit online.

But not all search experiences are created equal.

Establishing Expectations

The majority of our Internet search activity comes through the search engines we use. The process of entering a query into a search box and then being served pages of website links to choose from is an experience that is familiar to many. In a sense, it’s the search experience. When we think of search we think of our experience with search engines like Google.

So what’s the difference between a Google search and looking for restaurants on Yelp or searching for things to do on TripAdvisor? There’s actually a subtle difference in the experience and it can have a noticeable impact on how you process the results of your queries.

That difference comes down to the context (explicit and implied) related to the search results.

Where Searches Diverge

When you search with Google your experience probably goes something like this.

First, you enter your query in the search box. Next, You hit enter and end up on a page listing websites related to your search. This page is one of many but it’s not likely you’ll even get beyond the first five results. Of these results, you’ll have a title and a description (possibly with some highlighted words or sentences matching your query). Finally, you’ll end up on the page of your chosen result and (hopefully) find what you’re looking for.

But what happens if we apply this (for example) to a normal Yelp experience?

The experience isn’t very different from a process perspective. You search, then you get related results and eventually you decide to investigate one of those results further. While the process looks similar in both instances, it’s the cognitive user experience that differs.

Google provides you with a selection of web pages that can answer your query. Yelp provides you with a selection of individual locations and businesses related to your search. Isn’t this the same?

Not quite.

What’s different here is how the answer to your query is packaged. With Google, your answer isn’t the web page listed in your search results. Your answer is inside that listed page. With Yelp, the search results are the answer to your query. Every individual place listed relates to your search in some way. The level that the answer to your question is on matters.

Why Context Matters

When you evaluate a Google result you’re not evaluating the answer to your question. Instead, you’re figuring out which site to visit to find the answer to your question. The ranking of pages implies that the top results are the best pages to visit for your particular query. You only evaluate the answer itself once you’re on the chosen page. Yelp results have you evaluating the answer (along with many other possible answers) immediately.

Regardless of whether or not you’re searching for places, books, movies or even general information, the presentation of your answer is key. Using Google, you reach your answer inside another web page. The answer, in this case, is isolated from other possible answers that could be found on other pages listed in your search results.

This is missing from the Yelp experience. All the places that meet your criteria are listed beside one another. There’s no isolation of answers in this case. This can push a user towards analysis paralysis and makes it harder to settle on a single result.

Humans are information collecting machines. The more data you put in front of us, the more likely we are to keep digging into it. Searching through Google helps limit this. Yes, you get lots of web pages when you search but you have to investigate each one to get at the information they hold. This extra step impedes constant information gathering and focuses an individual on one page and its information at a time.

Yelp results don’t do this. A user is instead compelled to evaluate all of the possible answers set out before them. It’s almost too easy to scroll down and look at the next option. This keeps you searching and collecting but it doesn’t help you focus and decide.

The context in which you ultimately view the answer to your question matters. If it’s contained within a web page and separated from other answers it can help you focus and better evaluate it. If it’s listed beside lots of other options it can be harder to focus on a particular result and ultimately select a solution you’re comfortable with.

What This Means

This difference in search experiences comes down to their ability to help us focus. We’re so used to the Google-indexed web page experience that when we search through other sites like Yelp, TripAdvisor, and Facebook we can be easily distracted. Part of this is because we’re not as familiar with how to effectively process their results as we are with Google, but the other part is that they aren’t designed in a way that’s conducive to decision making.

This is not to say that Yelp and others are bad. They offer great products and services beyond just their search tools. But when it comes to making their information easily searchable and actionable, change is definitely needed.

The Web is the ultimate repository of useful information.

But it’s only useful if we have the right search tools to find and act on that information in the first place.

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