Dan Russell, Google’s über tech lead for search quality and user happiness, talks about improving searches, public reaction to Buzz and his impenetrable job title.
You are über tech lead for search quality and user happiness at Google. What does that mean?
My job is to understand what people do when they search online, using three kinds of research. The first is classic analytics: reading logs of the search terms people use and what they then click on. Second, in what is often called search anthropology: We go and observe, over hours or days, how people search online in their homes or on mobile devices. The third type is a millisecond-by-millisecond analysis of users’ eye movements as they try new Google search interfaces, which are constantly and subtly evolving.
What does your user research tell you?
It varies from simple stuff—like the fact that the first search result is clicked on twice as much as the second, and the second twice as much as the third—to finding that with new user interfaces people sometimes don’t see the novel elements we have added. Our ideas have to be discoverable.
What findings surprised you the most?
We have found that there are some surprisingly basic search techniques that people just don’t know about. I interviewed a bus driver who was searching for a transportation rule for a test. She was scrolling line-by-line through a 100-page Web document, so I asked her why she didn’t use “control+F” to search by keyword. It turns out she didn’t know about this absolutely basic browser function. Amazed by this, we ran a survey that found 90 percent of people don’t know about it.
How did you use this to improve Google?
We added new control+F features to our browser, Chrome. Now it not only jumps to the first instance of the word searched, but also highlights with yellow cursors in the Chrome scrollbar where the next instances of it are.
Have you altered Google search itself?
We found Google’s Advanced Search page was very forbidding for users, populated with complex terminology. Its bounce rate—people who leave within five seconds of arrival—was 80 percent, which is terrible, and nobody noticed it before. So we moved all the scary stuff elsewhere. That halved the bounce rate. But we don’t change too much in the search interface. Change aversion is a problem, so we want to make changes subtle—we don’t want any “who moved my cheese?” reactions.
I felt someone “moved my cheese” when my gmail was automatically enrolled in Google’s Buzz social network. What happened?
We were hoping it would be acceptable within the new consciousness of social networks. Clearly we misjudged that. People at Google are technology savants, not Mrs. Thistlebottom living in a village, and we thought things had changed. But we backed down quite quickly.
What would you say was at the root of the angry reaction to Buzz?
It was the unexpected consequence of automatic enrollment. It was like buying a train ticket and finding you had been signed up to the Freemasons.
This article originally appeared in New Scientist.