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The Search Lurch: Have We Become Lazy Googlers or Smarter Web Researchers?

Every day millions of Internet searchers use Google or other high-speed search engines such as MSN Search. Are all these Googlers just doing the "search lurch"? Try a few key words, click a few search results, and maybe they'll find what they're looking for in a few seconds. Or maybe they'll just give up and move on to something else. Four Web experts weigh in.
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"Google may be the only company in the world," says the Google corporate information page, "whose stated goal is to have users leave its Web site as quickly as possible." In fact, a reported 81.9 million Web searchers per month use Google to locate content ranging from Jessica Simpson to Hurricane Katrina. Many of us don't even bother using our bookmarks or favorites anymore—we just Google it when we need to find it.

Now that it's so easy for people to search for anything in a fraction of a second and retrieve content buried in deep links thanks to Google and other high-speed tools such as MSN Search, is this creating a kind of laziness on the part of Web users? In the early days of the Web, we might have imagined that we'd become sophisticated online researchers in the future, but now it seems that everyone is just doing the "search lurch": Enter a few key words, click through a few search results, and maybe you'll find what you're looking for in a few seconds... or maybe you'll just give up and move on to something else. It's like channel surfing with the remote, but on the Web.

We asked some well-known experts to comment on how our search habits are changing Web culture and even changing the way Web sites are being designed and maintained. Usability guru Dr. Jakob Nielsen founded the "discount usability engineering" movement for fast and cheap improvements of user interfaces and has invented several usability methods, including heuristic evaluation. Jesse James Garrett is a renowned author, interface designer, and information architect. Best-selling author and content expert Gerry McGovern is widely regarded as the number one worldwide authority on managing Web content as a business asset. Tara Calishain, an Internet researcher, is coauthor of the Google Pocket Guide and Google Hacks (O'Reilly), as well as other books on Internet searching.

Question: As the power and influence of search engines such as Google increase, will Web users bother going to homepages and trying to figure out each site's navigation scheme? Or with our increasingly shortened attention spans and demands on our time, will we just Google everything?

Nielsen: Users have never wanted separate interaction designs on each Web site, and the associated learning overhead. That's why it has always been a strong guideline to comply with user expectations and avoid deviant design. Search engines are simply making this trend stronger; they are not its cause. I know from user testing that one of the reasons users have been embracing search engines so warmly is as a way to liberate themselves from awkward and clumsy design on individual Web sites. One user told me: "I don't want to navigate this information the way this Web site wants me to; I just want to go straight to the page I want, so I'm going to search for it."

Garrett: I don't think we should lament the passing of an era in which users had to master navigation schemes in order to use sites. In some ways, search may be the best thing that ever happened to navigation—we're seeing lots of sites now paring their navigation back to just what's really necessary and essential to user needs, rather than trying to cram an entire site map into the left rail on every page.

Calishain: I don't think they'll Google everything. I think instead what will happen—what is happening—is that standards are developing for site navigation. Users will not have to grasp new site navigation schemes since they'll get used to going to a site and looking for the nav bar HERE and the content HERE and the search box HERE. I think people understand that search engines don't include the entire Web. As long as that's understood, they'll further understand they can't Google everything. They'll have to explore sites.

McGovern: I think people everywhere are very impatient when they're on the Web. If they don't get what they're looking for in the first page of search results, they're not very likely to go to the second page. Very few people will use advanced search. I haven't seen this basic pattern of behavior change in the last five years.

Q: Do you think it's futile for site designers and information architects to struggle with developing effective navigation schemes for their sites? In other words, is search engine optimization becoming more important than navigation optimization?

Calishain: Good lord, I hope not. A truly effective navigation scheme, it seems to me, should prove effective for both a human visitor and a spidering 'bot. The challenge is to build a structure that a 'bot can appreciate and a human can understand, and build a vocabulary of description on your site that a human can appreciate and a 'bot can understand. I believe these are complementary aims.

McGovern: No. In my experience, there is a difference between the behavior of someone when they are on Google and when they are on an ordinary Web site. People may use Google to find a type of Web site, but then they are likely to navigate around it if it's well-designed. They will often only resort to using search on that site if the navigation is poor.

Garrett: Navigation still has a very important role to play. First of all, there is a large audience for whom search is not their preferred method of information retrieval. Secondly, navigation helps users make connections between content elements that they might not otherwise make. Search is great when you're looking for a particular piece of information; navigation helps you find information you didn't know you were looking for.

Nielsen: Good navigation is still essential, especially local navigation to information in the neighborhood of the current page. First, search engines are not magic, so they don't always lead users to exactly the right page. Sometimes users need to move around a little inside the site to zero in on the stuff they want. Second, Web sites often have additional information to offer that's spread among multiple pages. This is especially true for B2B sites where products and services are too complex for a single product page to offer everything users want. There's a need to navigate to whitepapers, spec sheets, and much more, and there's also often a need to navigate between members of a product family before users can decide which one is the most appropriate for them.

Q: On the premise that Web users are already Googling more, navigating less, what would you recommend to site designers to make their sites more usable and searchable right now?

McGovern: Creating a good navigation will always be a core challenge for the Web designer. What is often forgotten is the relationship between well-organized content and search. The better organized and written your content is, the more searchable it is. And it's not an either/or. Search and navigation needs to work in tandem, with some people using people to get to a certain part of the Web site, then using navigation to go further.

Nielsen: Good usability has always been essential, since people have always left sites that were too complicated. The rise of search has simply lowered the threshold of what's considered "too complicated" a good deal because users have nine other sites at their fingertips on the SERP [search engine results page]. There is now more of a tendency for users to dip into sites briefly for a very quick visit of 1–5 pages. As a result of this information-snacking behavior, Web sites must design to be attractive snacks and offer value for these ultra-short visits.

Calishain: If there are any pre-existing organization structures that would work on your site (organizing by date, alphabetization, card catalog number, etc.), use them. Consider using a site map. Have a Home button on each page. Put an About button somewhere, no matter how bloody obvious you think your site's purpose is. Make sure that if someone does come to your site via Google that they have some way to quickly get to a summary of what your site is all about.

Garrett: It used to be that we could reasonably assume that most of the audience seeing a page deep in the site will have already seen the home page, a section page of some kind, and possibly some related content. As search engines become more effective, we have to acknowledge that users may not have all that context when they come to the page, and design every page as if it were the very first page the user sees in their experience of our site. The homepage is no longer the only place where we have to make a good first impression.

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