This post is about lessons we might be able to learn from Google’s web design. If you are more interested in web design for better rankings in Google, that’s fine too. Try this post: Google SEO and Web Design.
I think so. I could bang on about the sparing but elegant use of colour or the clean and crisp presentation, or the use of space, or the thought given to the clear display of the results but I’m not going to.
I was talking to Brian the other day about this post and I was reminded that not everyone was around when Google came along. There is a whole generation of Internet users now (and even Internet professionals) who don’t remember life before Google. They don’t know what you’re talking about if you say AltaVista or HotBot. It also occurred to me that these were fairly early days for the Internet. There is a whole other generation of people, older than me for the most part, who now use Google but who also hardly remember their precursors because they weren’t big Internet users in those days.
I was just out of college, in my first job, and used the Internet extensively and on a daily basis both for research and because the company had just launched a commercial Internet venture. Search engines were important to us at work and we noticed Google. As daily users of search services, we were among the early adopters that Google would have been targeting.
So I thought I would take a look at Google’s website design from back then and outline some of the things I think they did right. Some of the things that encouraged me to switch and to visit this upstart several times a day instead of their established competitors.
Google filed for incorporation in 1998. In late 1998, their site looked like this:
By the spring of 1999, the homepage already had a look that you’ll be familiar with:
Nothing revolutionary here so far, until you consider that the competition looked like this:
Click on the thumbnails to view larger screenshots.
Google was launched into a market where its competitors were tripping over themselves to be Portals. Your homepage for the Internet. Everything, all in one place. Whether you wanted it or not. Crammed into so little space that even if what you needed was on the page you probably wouldn’t see it. Google broke the mould.
What do we do? they asked themselves…. We’re a search engine.
What do people do when they visit a search engine? …. They want to perform a search.
How do we give them what they want and do it better than the competition? ….
Let’s see. What did Google do about that? Well, they had their groundbreaking technology and they managed to do a better job of finding relevant results. They did a better job of returning less spam and they set about indexing more of the Internet, faster, than their competitors so in a short while they were more comprehensive. These things were vital but so was the design.
In 1999, we had Internet at work but it was still dial-up. Our first fibreoptic, always on, connection wasn’t much faster. Google’s sparse design wasn’t just great because I didn’t have to look at a garish mess of a page filled with stuff I didn’t need. It loaded much, much, more quickly than the others. When they returned their super fast results page they actually told you exactly what fraction of a second it took to return your results. Just to twist the knife on the slower competition.
The faster results page wasn’t just about the simple page design. In fact, it was probably more influenced by the technology used to store, index, retrieve and rank the results. But bragging about how quick they were right at the top of the results page, that was genius.
Google’s design carried simplicity from the homepage through to the results which were clean and uncluttered. I’d hate to be wrong about this but I am almost certain that initially they didn’t even have ads. This simplicity created a purity of function in what Google was about. I wanted the best search engine available and they gave me a site that reinforced their technical achievements by removing the clutter. It said, we have the best search because we focus on doing it well. We don’t need all that clutter. You can come here, get straight down to the business of searching and have your results before the competition’s homepage has even loaded.
As a user, I switched to Google because they gave me better results and gave them to me faster but it wasn’t a purely logical, fact based, decision. Google came from nowhere to compete and eventually overtake what were massive, established, properties. This was a company that launched a search engine with a stated ethos of “Do no evil”. They gained not only users but evangelists.
The techie nerds of the world loved Google and we told everyone who would listen that Google was by far and away the best search engine and they should switch. This is the benefit Google achieved by thinking about its visitors. This is how they built a massively dominant, worldwide, brand with almost no marketing spend. They thought about their visitors, and their visitors did the PR for them.