This is a picture of Google’s homepage, from April 1999.
It looks broadly similar to Google’s page now. Obviously Google is no longer in Beta, and these days you can log in and be confronted with a vast maze of products, but the core Search homepage is still very basic and uncluttered.
As is every other Search homepage. A Google challenger like DuckDuckGo sticks to the orthodoxy of box, logo and as little else as possible. DuckDuckGo goes further, actually, and doesn’t even say it’s a search engine: presumably it knows that visitors are coming because they’ve seen it mentioned as a David to the Googliath.
Of course, it wasn’t always this way. This is a picture of AltaVista, probably the leading Search Engine in 1999.
Not quite so pretty. But with problems that go beyond the visual clutter. As a surfer in 1999 you can do a lot of things on AltaVista: you can search, you can go to one of its channels, you can switch language, you can look in its lovingly compiled directory, you can see what its free net access deal is, you can even undertake a “POWER SEARCH” (whatever that is). And most of these tools come festooned with further options.
It is enormously confusing, fatally unintuitive. But also absolutely typical of the web at the time. In 1999, AltaVista was the orthodox way to do a site. This wasn’t “loss of focus” or “feature creep” – diagnoses only reached with hindsight. This was a powerful, efficient way of putting a page together, putting the greatest amount of usefulness into the smallest possible space. The new features, in fact, were a success – the BabelFish automatic translator drew the same gasps of futuristic awe Google Glasses or augmented reality apps might get now.
Looking at AltaVista makes you understand what a thunderbolt of clarity Google was, though. And for all the excellent rationalisations of Google’s success – its better algorithms, and so on – from a system 1 decision making perspective, looking at its design tells you everything.
System 1 decisions are emotional, implicit, often unconscious, and considerably easier to make than their more effortful system 2 counterparts. This is what Google’s design tapped into. Yes, the results were fast, and the results were good. But even before you got to the results, Google made the search decision and process fun, fast and easy – which is exactly the advice we give to any brand looking to influence someone’s decision. All other search engines made an implicit assumption that their users were considered decision makers who would appreciate being given a range of options to weigh up. Google threw that out of the window, and we are still living with the results.