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.

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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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