Google's gained a new unbranded site called SearchMash, where it plans to test user interface ideas without Google's brand somehow skewing the tests.
About the Site
Currently, SearchMash allows you to perform a search and get Web and image results presented side by side. It's similar to how A9 has long allowed side-by-side results, ironically a feature that it's made much harder to implement after a recent redesign.
Web results are presented in the main left-hand column after a search and seem ranked the same as at Google. Presentation is different, however. Results are numbered, and clicking on the URL line pops up a box with options to:
After the first 10 results, there's a "more Web pages" link at the bottom. Click on this, and you get another 10 results on the same page, inserted below the first 10. You can keep going, adding 10 more results at a time.
It's pretty slick. Microsoft's Windows Live had a similar infinite scroll feature that allowed you to keep getting more results as you went down the page. Unveiled in March, it was dropped in September for Web results (it still works for image results) when Windows Live came out of beta, as Microsoft felt it slowed performance.
Although A9 dropped many features, it gained continuous scroll. Do a search there, and as you scroll down more results keep magically appearing, 10 at a time.
Unique to SearchMash is the ability to drag-and-drop Web search results. Click on the number next to any listing, and you can move that listing higher or lower in the search results. The number won't change after you move it. The feature doesn't seem that useful.
Far better would be a scratch-pad-style feature such as Windows Live offers for image search. Being able to drag and drop Web results into some type of collection area would be handy -- and it's something Microsoft is promising.
Questions for Google
So what's up with SearchMash? I fired some questions off to Google. Here are the answers I got:
Q. When did this go up from Google?
A. Very recently.
Q. Why are you doing it?
Q. Why isn't it on Google Labs?
A. Google Labs continues to be a great site for Google to launch new products that may not be ready for primetime yet frequently and quickly. In this case, one of the important factors we wanted to address was the influence that may come from Google branding. Creating a separate site will help us gather more objective data about user response to new interfaces.
Follow-Up and Speculation
How can a site that no one knows about be useful to Google? Pretty much no one heard of it until recently. As best I can tell:
So the site's going to have plenty of visitors, but all the wrong type. Google's not trying to test against people who are the influencers, tech-heads, or early adopters.
Remember, Google's done a lot of testing over the past year or so. Barry Schwartz just noted yet another sidebar navigation experiment yesterday. The experiments became so frequent and discussed that, in March, I was begging Google to provide more official notice about what it was doing. Google's response to me was that announcing the experiments would skew the results.
Still, with everyone watching so closely, experiments were quickly noted by the blogging community. That may have helped Google decide in April to itself blog about how it tries to test things against small groups. It even illustrated some of its experiments.
Now SearchMash gives Google an experimental playground, one similar to how AlltheWeb is supposed to operate for Yahoo, though aside from LiveSearch being launched there in May, Yahoo's not done much with AlltheWeb.
Google can play with weird stuff at SearchMash without worrying about "normal" users having the Google brand set up expectations. But how do those normals (or "mundanes" for you "Babylon 5" fans) get to the site? From Google:We have various methods for driving traffic to search and UI experiments that we run but we don't share details regarding the methodology to help keep the results as objective as possible.
A couple of guesses here. Google is likely (or will be likely) to divert people to the site in various ways, such as if someone uses an AdSense for search box on a content site. It might simply push some people trying to reach Google to SearchMash (perhaps with some interstitial page warning them beforehand). It also gives the company a site to put before controlled focus groups, where they might not know Google is behind it.
What about the skewing that will happen now that early adopters and the Google-obsessed will be all over SearchMash? They can be filtered out. If Google is directing certain groups to the site in various ways, it can then filter studies of user behavior to just those groups.
OK, one last thing. What about the idea that SearchMash will be the new place for Google to allow people to create custom search engines of their own, similar to Yahoo Search Builder launched last month or the older Rollyo or Eurekster Swicki services?
Garett Rogers last week wondered if the IndexBench trademark Google applied for recently was a sign that Google was planning custom vertical search engines. Now he wonders if SearchMash will instead be the place for this, after Google Operating System highlighted a "Time Magazine" article, confirming Google plans this:Marissa Mayer, who manages search products, says the company has assigned more engineers to search than ever before and plans to release a new search tool that will enable users to design and build their own flavor of Google search, scanning just the sites they're interested in.
So yes, custom vertical searches are coming, likely more substantial and customizable than the long-standing Site-Flavored Google Search that's been out since 2004 and recently upgraded this year. But Google wouldn't say if it will be on SearchMash or not. So wait, watch and see.
Finally, the feel of SearchMash relative to A9 is uncanny in many ways. A9 was an experimental playground for Amazon that seems to have lost its way after it lost its CEO Udi Manber to Google. I haven't heard back from Google on whether Manber is now running SearchMash. But seeing the side-by-side results that were a hallmark of A9 and the infinite scroll that's similar to what A9 just rolled out (and what may have been in the works before Manber left A9), it sure feels like he's running a new playground search engine -- this time for Google.
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March 19, 2014