Google's Sticking With a New Controversial Search Tweak

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If you happen to find yourself perplexed by the recent change to the Google.com interface that 'unsticks' search terms between verticals, like, say, between plain ol' search and Google News, you should know that you're not alone. But you should also know that you're out of luck. A Google spokesperson said today that the UI change is intentional and is staying around, for now at least.

Here's what in our world has been upended. Once upon a time, if you typed a search term like "Occupy Wall Street" into the Google website search box, you might find yourself thinking that the website-centric search results weren't timely enough, and toggle over to Google News using the black toolbar at the top of the screen. If you did that, your search would be transferred from a web search to a news search, in seeming recognition of the fluidity between all sorts of materials on the web. Searches for "Occupy Wall Street" in pure search or in news were variations on the same act, not new search instances.

Now, no more. In a user interface tweak that seemed to accompany announced changes to the Google algorithm this week, the search box is scrubbed between some verticals. The search box returns to its blank state. And judging from my own extensive user-testing -- i.e., I tweeted about my perplexed reaction to the change last night, and several tweets in response -- it's one that is producing unhappiness. Some sample responses: "Noticed this Google thing today and thought I was losing it. Annoying, but at least I'm not the only one!" And, "I've been noticing that & totally hate it -- thought it was just me." And "In solidarity. It's super annoying."

The design change, wrote the Google representative in an email today, is a small adjustment, "albeit noticeable if you're an avid user." She went on to say that the adjustment is "part of a constant process of experimenting and making changes to the design and user interface of Google products." She recommended an alternative. "For query refinements such as restricting results only to news, we recommend the left-hand side tools that I'm sure you're very familiar with."

That left-side box of which our Google rep speaks is a suite of search options introduced as part of a major UI overhaul that happened in May, where the left panel was part of a bid to make searching between verticals "seamless," in the words of Google user experience designer Jon Wiley. That left panel has some selling points that the top black navigation bar lacks, the Google rep pointed out, namely that it produces more contextualized search tools. For instance, go that route to search for images, and you are presented with options for color, size, and style of art. "An important part of our philosophy is that tools should be there when you need to use them," the Google rep said in a follow-up phone call, "but not in your face when you don't." Google's user testing, she said, suggested that people like using that responsive left-hand box.

That said, it's not exactly clear how unsticky-ifying Google searches when they happen via the black tool bar advances the goal of of contextualized search. In fact, it's not at all clear what goal, if any, making that choice accomplishes. Our Google rep declined to say, other than to confirm that the choice was intentional.

At this point, you're thinking, this is what counts as a big deal now? Having to type a search term in...shudder...twice? That's going to kill you? Maybe not, but there is something going on here.

That a simple binary change to a user interface can be so noticeable, and so relatively unsettling is a reminder of how important digital interfaces can be, especially where those interfaces are as dominant as Google's. At last count, two-thirds of all online searches in the U.S. ran through Google (though, of course, not all of them through the Google.com interface). For many of us, Google serves as an extension of our own brains.The company's engineers make changes as they see fit, and it can feel something like waking up in the morning to find that the circuits in our heads have been rewired. (The Atlantic Technology channel has called this the my-mom-cleaned-my-room problem.)

And it's not ridiculous to consider that these sorts of nuts and bolts of our UI choices have dollars and cents consequences. Tweeted Washington DC digital strategist Tracy Russo last night, "Think of the national productivity loss that will result from this @google error. All that time shaving milliseconds off search will be lost."

(For what it's worth, this is the kernel of the policy argument that Google is making as it confronts growing charges of behaving monopolistically: in the world of centralized web-based software, the only thing easier than us screwing up the whole enterprise with a few dumb changes is our customers clicking right over to Bing.com.)

Ultimately, it is Google's UI to tweak. The Google representative reiterated that the company does extensive user testing, not only in-person in their labs and with small groups of testers around the world, but via the enormous amount of data they collect from we users as we go about Googling for things like "Occupy Wall Street." So maybe if we keep retyping the exact same search terms as we go from tab to tab, they'll get the hint. Or maybe we will. The black navigation bar that's at the center of Togglegate seems like it has been part of the Google.com interface forever, but it's only been there since June. And when it was rolled out, plenty of power users said that it was the worst thing that had ever happened to Google.

You and I may not like de-toggling, but it's here to stay

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Nancy Scola is a writer based in New York. She has written for New York, Salon, and Seed, and is a frequent contributor to The American Prospect.

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