Google Results Bias – Nature or Nurture?

Ever since Firefox started serving Yahoo results as the default, I have been running a little experiment with myself. Despite an almost immediate urge to switch the default back to Google, I resisted and have been performing searches in both to try to really compare the experiences. Now, I know, one person is a small sample, but I thought I’d share what I’ve found and learned by doing this, because I think it is important to always be looking at search from the perspective of searchers. Certainly, I preach this when it comes to your web site, PPC or SEO – you must not only think like the customers you desire, but also know what else they are likely going to see when they search for you and your products or services.

The strongest conclusion I drew from my experiment is that I have a very, very strong preference for Google’s results pages. I really am wondering now how much of that is nature – the actual look, feel and construction of their results pages, and how much is nurture – Google’s ubiquity causing it to become the default standard for how search results “should” look and feel and function. I don’t really have an answer, but thought I’d show some comparisons of identical searches and share my reactions to them to start a conversation.

First search – local restaurant (which is a fantastic place if you’re ever in the Philly burbs!).

Google’s results page:

Google results restaurant search
The Google results page is very nicely composed. The callout box on the right definitely draws attention and has all of the information in it that most searchers would be looking for when performing this type of search. I was meeting a friend at this place and wanted to put the address into my GPS. Boom – right there in the answer box. All of the listings for the restaurant on various sites are also attractive, especially with the orange stars so prominently displayed. This feels clean to me and proportionally balanced.

Now Yahoo’s results page for the same search:

Restaurant Search Yahoo

Interestingly, the actual links in the result sets are quite similar, but this page just feels less attractive and less useful to me. Empirically, it really isn’t but the aesthetic choices make it feel like it has significantly less information. Even simple differences like Google bolding the query words (in this case the restaurant’s name) where Yahoo does not. And the tone of the green for the links makes the links stand out more on the page, which also contributes to the more busy feel. And the map, without other context, feels out of place. Without ads anchoring the map, the right column feels very out of balance with the left for this search. It makes the left column feel crowded, even though it has more space on the actual screen.

Second Search – Dryer Vent Cleaning

Google results:

Dryer Vent Cleaning - Google


This results set is a little more jumbled. I suspect that is because the query could be for either a product or service.

Yahoo’s results:

Dryer Vent Search - Yahoo


Again, this results set just feels less useful to me, even though it does have similar information within it.

So, why are Google’s results pages “better” than Yahoo’s?

I think the answer lies in two areas: overall design and conditioning.

First the subtle design differences that I think contribute to the better feel for Google:

  1. Google’s Ad tag/designation is visually stronger and looks like a distinct element rather than another bit of different colored text.
  2. Google’s Answer Box is far superior in visual design and content to Yahoo’s.
  3. Placing the Map pin next to the address rather than next to the company name makes for a cleaner local listing section in the Google results.
  4. The spacing in the Map listings for Google is much better than Yahoo. Google has only 2 columns of information, with ample white space between the business name and the map pin and address listing. Yahoo uses a three column listing which makes the listings harder to read.
  5. The color values for the Page Titles and Site Links are more subtle on the Google page. The tones that are both brighter in general and in contrast to each other on the Yahoo page make them feel like competing, rather than complimentary elements.
  6. The subtle very light gray dividing line in between products in the product ads on the Google page makes that section feel more organized.
  7. For the restaurant search – the map, with no context in the Yahoo results, feels bad when you compare it to the rich answer box in the Google results.

The other factor, that cannot be dismissed is conditioning. We are simply also used to a results page that looks like a Google results page. Feel about them however you will, but they are still the dominant search engine and have been for a long time. In a lot of ways, our brains were trained to see their layout as “correct” because we have the highest level of familiarity with it. Even as they tweak their results page layouts, the baseline remains familiar.

I strongly encourage you to perform your own experiments. These observations are obviously representative of one person’s experiences, my own. I’m sure my background as a graphic designer also influences my reaction to the different layouts. I have an almost annoying eye for color detail – my new office has one wall that was repainted and the color is ever so slightly off from the other 3 walls and it drives me nuts. So, your mileage may vary when you compare and contrast the results.

As always, love to hear your thoughts either in the comments or on Twitter!

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