Yahoo’s momentum and the plateau of search usability

In the email announcing his last Alert Box, Jakob Nielsen comments on the proposed Microsoft-Yahoo tie-up, from a point of view of web usability. He explains his surprise that Microsoft would spend money for what can be seen as an advertising company, in the context of rising banner blindness, but goes on to point out two benefits: the value of owning the search-the-web-from-here box on any page (that’s where people search), and the compelling offer of a single interface for putting up ads on two distribution networks. He suggests plowing the money into improving search UI and results quality.

In this period of US presidential primaries, we’ve heard about momentum. It doesn’t seem to matter who wins the popular vote, nor who manages to have the most delegates at the convention, it’s all about who looks like they’re winning. The popular vote and the delegates definitely play a role, but so do polls, fund raising, press coverage, and other fuzzy factors (electability? ). The candidates select whatever data puts them in a good light at the moment and tell journalists it is the way to look at things. Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama can both claim at the same time they’re winning, without lying.

And so it goes with the industry: the stock market value of huge companies is no longer directly based on their profitability. They have become too large and complex for such an intuitive measurement to be totally relevant: profitability can be faked (for short but significant periods of time), it can be huge but yet seen as inadequate, or it can be negative but be offset by a belief in future profitability. Here, too, it’s about momentum. The stock market has to be convinced of a company’s ability to bounce, to pounce, to be the top guy. Especially in the digital economy where assets have no lasting physical value, the perception of value is what counts.

Another observation: as Nielsen has pointed out, powerful search engines have died in the past. Alta Vista simply disappeared at some point. The same could perhaps happen to Google, if a new, more relevant search engine came along. Better usability (i.e. more convenient and self-evident path between the question and the answer), better search results (no spam, fewer irrelevant pages), and more content indexed (fewer “hidden” pages).

But is that really possible? Google has hit a sweet spot in usability, and is sticking to it successfully so far, carefully expanding functionality, to avoid breaking the basic experience. Better search results, several new projects have promised that, and have failed to deliver. The search quality of Google competitors is either inferior or marginally superior — not enough to justify a massive migration. Roughly the same applies to the amount of content available for search — and all major search engines are aggressively seeking to increase their searchable content base, both on the web and off, both with other people’s content and their own.

Because of the overwhelming popularity of search over other forms of seeking information online, the search ecosystem seems to have reached a certain plateau. Not passive, by any means: Google spends freely on maintaining its edge, while scammers and spammers come up with new ways to reach an audience, and legitimate businesses all buy SEO and SEM. But in a kind of Archimedean standoff, any effort to achieve a goal will trigger a roughly equal opposing force. Gains in this area can now only be marginal.

Despite Yahoo’s current image as a troubled firm, it certainly remains appetizing: yearly page views are in the trillions, and it can boast a portfolio of tools with a dedicated user base. Whoever manages to absorb it will definitely gain momentum. But whatever the outcome, I doubt there will be a significant improvement for users.

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