Coming Soon to a Google Near You: More Interactivity?

Google is unveiling functionality that hints at a new trend in the direction they might be taking their search engine: interactivity.

Back in January, Google celebrated Isaac Newton’s birthday with an animated logo that showed an apple falling from a tree. But there was nothing specifically for the user to do. In May, however, they embedded a version of Pac-Man which users could actually play. This marked a radical change (for one solitary day) in how visitors use Google. For the 10 years prior to this, visitors to Google’s search engine simply entered their search query, clicked ‘Google Search’, got results, and selected one link to visit first. But with the Pac-Man logo, for the first time (to the best of my recollection) users could actually do something at Google’s search engine besides just clicking to go somewhere else.

Starting in October 2009, though, Google began showing a new kind of ad for mortgage-related searches called “comparison ads“. In the screenshot below (which you can enlarge by clicking), the top “ad” actually takes the user to a Google page listing mortgage refinancers and their advertised interest rates. This new kind of ad got a lot of attention from those in the lead generation business because it seems to represent an effort by Google to make themselves, in essence, an affiliate marketer. However, comparison ads deserve attention for another reason: they involve action on the user’s part beyond simply clicking a link.

(click to enlarge)

Notice that in the ad shown above, users can select from one of two options (“Buy a home” or “Refinance”) and then click a button to compare mortgage rates. That is, users are filling out a (very short) form to provide Google more information about what interests them.

Recently, Google seems to be picking up the pace of adding interactivity. Last week, in celebration of the birthday of R. Buckminster Fuller, Google’s logo replaced one of the letters with a spinning fullerene molecule. However, the image didn’t just spin on its own – users could cause the molecule to spin, rotate slowly or even stop entirely by moving their cursor over it.

Today, Google has replaced their logo with a series of bubbles that are repelled by the motion of the cursor. Google claims that today’s logo is not in celebration of the anniversary of the company’s founding, but didn’t offer an explanation for what exactly the logo was for.

Perhaps these little interactive logos are really just an effort by Google to get users accustomed to the idea of doing something at Google’s site, rather than just searching and leaving. If so, what sorts of interactive things might we begin seeing in Google’s search page and results pages?

One possibility is disambiguation pages. Users are accustomed to entering a search query and being immediately directed to a page of results. But some queries are tough to figure out what the user’s intent or desire is. For example, if a user enters a query for “java”, rather than try to figure out from their past search history or other factors whether they are interested in java coffee or Java the island or Java the programming language, it might be best to just ask them directly. Wikipedia uses these pages for ambiguous search queries, so why not Google? Well, as I said, when using Google, searchers are accustomed to immediately getting a list of results – not being taken to a disambiguation page. Perhaps adding other interactive features to Google’s main page will make users more accepting of such momentary inconveniences.

Another possibility for on-site interaction might be to play media directly in search results. The first results when searching for folk singer “Tim Eriksen” is a block of audio samples of Tim’s music. A few results down are links to YouTube videos of songs he’s performed.

(click to enlarge)

Microsoft Bing already allows videos to be played directly in its search results, including sound, simply by mousing over the thumbnail image. It’s not a big conceptual leap from this to Google allowing videos to both be played directly in the search results and a small button allowing the video to pop to full screen – essentially turning Google’s search results pages into a Hulu-like video broadcaster and a radio station.

Google has also been making efforts to aggregate publicly available data regarding health, economics, technology, the environment and so forth in the form of interactive graphs. Again, it isn’t the big of a leap to envision interactive stock charts, public records graphs and similar items to also appear in Google’s search results.

Who knows what else Google is envisioning? The biggest hurdle to Google making the search engine results pages be users’ destination, rather than just a crossroad on the way to somewhere else, is making people mentally prepared for interactive use on Google’s site itself.

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