“Google Succeeded Because” Part I: UX

Posted: July 22, 2005 in Uncategorized
Google succeeded because it figured out what the Yellow Pages has known for an awfully long time: 
     Advertising works when timely and helpful and not distracting.
The Yellow Pages don’t have ads on residential pages.  That would be distracting.
The Yellow Pages do have ads on business pages.  That’s helpful.  What I call, "Advertising at the Point of Interest"… at the appropriate time, we consumers actually want to be distracted by the largest or prettiest ad, it helps us find and pick a business. 
"Oh, they have the largest ad on the page, they must be the best plumbers," kinda thing.
The Yellow Pages can separate these two things because they only allow searching on two main things, residential and business phone numbers.
With inspired simplicity, they simply separated the "UX" (user experience) for each.
Google had a bigger challenge.
You can search for everything in Google.  Not just residential or business phone numbers, but essentially all the information in the world!
So how do you create an advertising mechanism that will inevitably show up with every search but isn’t distracting at the inappropriate time?
The answer:  By toning ads down.  By separating them geographically on a page.  By giving them secondary (or inferior) position on the page.  By making all ads uniform and strictly standardized.
Pretty much exactly opposite of what the entire ad industry — your paying customers — would want.
I’d love to say that Google did this with great forethought.  That, after considering the needs of its search and advertising customers, it painstakingly crafted a creative, intelligent compromise between form & functionality.
But the myth says the Google twins simply told advertising customers, "go pound sand."
Remember — particularly at the time Google was invented (1998) — the entire ad industry was obsessed with graphical HTML.  Big, pretty pictures.  Blinking, ALL CAP headlines.  And so on.  The electronic equivalent of NY’s Times Square.  Distraction as a form of attention getting.
The ad industry — of course — had data to back up how much more effective big, pretty, distracting, blinking ads were.
Enter Eric Schmidt, the new Google CEO, who basically sat the twins down and said, "can we p-l-e-a-s-e try to make some money here?"
The twins were furious.  Not only that someone would tell them what to do, but especially something that would impugn the purity of their search results.
So, the twins fought back in the way only way they could:  "Sure, we’ll do advertising… but totally on our terms.  It will be so bland and out-of-the-way that in no way will it ever be distracting."
And, whether you chalk this up to design intelligence — or simply ego — it worked. 
Absolutely freakin’ brilliantly.
And the point of this story?
Google was the first online company to capture the magic of the Yellow Pages:  Create a mass advertising experience that is timely and helpful and never distracting.
P.S.  Why am I really writing about this?  Because — while alerting is inherently a different mechanism ("push" vs. "pull") — we’re trying to create the same UX magic with alerts.
Plus, it’s a bitchin’ story. <smile>
  1. Unknown says:

    Ads may have been secondary in position on the page, but now many users look there first. The uniformity and cleanliness of the ad column is often more appealing to the eye than the left column, which for some results is becoming quite busy (top ads, new icons for books/news, photos at times, indented results, various lengths of page titles and descriptions…). Pay attention, and don\’t "improve" the UX incrementally bit, by bit, by bit, convinced that each addition is useful, when overall it may just further distract.

  2. Royal Farros says:

    Willie, can\’t agree with you more!Last year I took an interesting audience poll at Gnomedex, a great tech/blogging conference.With about 500 tech-heads in the audience, I asked the question: "When you look at a Google page, how many look on the left first (natural listings)? How many look on the right first (ads)?"I asked this because over the last year, I\’ve found myself looking on the right first… and many times exclusively on the right.Can\’t get much better than that if you\’re trying to create a helpful ad mechanism.I figured a good portion of the audience — maybe 10-20% — were doing the same as me.The answer blew me away, though.75% of the audience — folks I would consider hypersensitive to advertising — looked on the right first… at the ads.Wow. Kudos to Google for building a killer ad mechanism.