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Online Extra: Google's Search for Simplicity


Change has been one of the only constants at Google (). In five years, its payroll has rocketed from about 100 to over 4,200 staffers. Sales have jumped from $19 million to more than $3 billion. And its product offerings have mushroomed from simple Internet search to include dozens more, from e-mail to maps to instant messaging.

Despite this roiling change, Google's famously minimalist home page looks almost as it did when the upstart search company owned just 1% of the market. Consider this: Five years ago, Google's home page contained 50 words, 11 links, and zero ads. Today, it contains 49 words, 17 links, and zero ads.

NO-FRILLS. By contrast, the current home pages of key competitors Yahoo! () and Microsoft's () MSN show a flurry of activity, with animated ads and roughly 140 links apiece.

Google's no-frills, fast-loading site has been key to its growing popularity among Internet searchers, particularly as rivals vastly improve their own search technologies.

But it also poses a dilemma for Google: How can it draw attention to its many new products without cluttering the site and turning off its core constituency of searchers?

LOW-KEY APPROACH. It's already an issue that demands attention. Take Google's e-commerce search site, dubbed Froogle. Though launched in December, 2002, Froogle didn't get flagged with a simple text link on Google's home page until the middle of 2004.

While traffic to Froogle has picked up, it still badly trails that of its competitors. Indeed, Froogle receives about one-tenth as many visitors as does Yahoo Shopping, according to comScore Media Metrix.

The issue becomes more pressing when considering two of Google's biggest launches of late: E-mail and instant messaging. With both offerings, the search giant is attempting to erase its rivals' massive headstarts -- as much as seven years and tens of millions of active users.

HELP OR HASSLE? Even if Google's features leapfrog the competition, as it did with the amount of free storage space given to e-mail users, these aren't products people will quickly drop in exchange for another.

For instance, changing an e-mail address these days is about as simple as changing one's home address. Friends and colleagues need to be alerted, as do everything from school directories to online profiles to mailing lists. Prodding users to make such a dramatic step will take more than the word-of-mouth marketing that propelled Google in Internet search.

It's a challenge that isn't lost on Google. Every year, executive Marissa Mayer, who oversees consumer Web products and the site's user interface, holds an off-site meeting with dozens of her reports. One exercise she asks them to do is to mock-up a Web site, illustrating what they think Google will look like in two years, and how the site will be used.

IS CLUTTER GOOD? At the meeting held last August, Mayer was struck by the number of mock-ups that showed a busier Google home page. More than half of the presenters believed features should be added.

"Everyone's home page had all of this stuff on it," she recalls. One associate product manager told her: "Most of our users don't want anything else. But some do, and we should give it to them."

The words stuck. And within months, Google was hatching a personalized home-page offering. It would allow users to construct and save their own Google homepage, including everything from news headlines to local weather reports to e-mails sent to their Google account. When the service launched this May, Google CEO Eric Schmidt pronounced that eventually most Google users would use such a customized interface.

WINNING CONVERTS. That view is likely overoptimistic. While Google doesn't release usage numbers for particular services, it's a safe bet that the majority of Google visitors aren't yet even aware they have an option to customize their start page.

And of those who do see the occasional text plug for the service on Google's home page, only a minority will likely interrupt their info-hunting to quickly lay out their desired start page.

Even if Google doesn't win a huge swath of converts to its customized start page, don't expect major changes to its design philosophy. In fact, Mayer, who inherited responsibility of the site's design from Google's co-founders in 1999, continues to push for simplicity.

SWISS-ARMY KNIFE. She views the site much like a Swiss Army Knife. It may have a plethora of features, but they shouldn't all be flayed open, overwhelming the user.

"If you try to grab [the knife] with everything open, you'll get hurt," she says. "We try to add functionality in context," to what the user is doing.

The search for simplicity goes beyond the home page. Mayer frequently puts her designers through exercises, such as mocking up a no-scroll version of Google's results pages. To achieve this, the list of results had to be trimmed from 10 to 5 links.

THE CHALLENGES AHEAD. But designers still had to exclude everything but the most pertinent information to make it work. While no such changes to Google are in the works, Mayer feels these exercises push people to think about the design in different ways, generating useful ideas. "You really find out what's important," she says.

All of this toil bodes well for searchers seeking a clean interface. But Google product managers hoping to drum up attention for offerings not showcased on the home page, from maps to blogging software, are in for a difficult challenge.

Although one of its biggest assets, Google's simple design could also create one of its larger headaches. By Ben Elgin

EDITED BY Patricia O'Connell


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