Sunday, November 25, 2012

Google are at it again

I go through great pains to make sure that my Google searches are done with google.co.nz. When first installing a browser I find that it uses google.com. Why is this important to me? It's to do with the way I buy goods online.

First off, I normally check trademe and ebay (ebay can put me directly in touch with manufacturers). After which, I then have a look to see if retail is any better. In which case, I do a search on Google and restrict results to New Zealand. Sometimes, if buying gifts, and figuring it's actually cheaper (I'm frugal) to buy from within that country than to have it sent here and then paying another lot of shipping, I'll go to that regions Google page and do the same thing. i.e. for Australia, I'd use google.com.au.

Imagine my surprise when I found that the option is now gone. Well... not gone exactly. Hidden. Instead of a single click, it's now 3 clicks:-


One to expose search tools, one to show the drop down box and finally, one to say I want Pages from New Zealand.

In terms of usability, this is a fail.

At one stage I was working as a data entry temp and saw some pretty old systems. The sorts of systems where the instructions went along the lines of enter in /1;5;13;1 to get to such and such screen. With these systems, even if only using it for a couple of hours, I'd spend the first 3 minutes or so making sure that no matter what, I was able to get back to that screen.

Basically, at the first menu, press 1. Then you'd find yourself at another menu and you'd press 5 etc. The system was huge and would work in one screen at a time (80 columns, 25 rows). What you couldn't fit in a screen would end up being on an entirely different screen. Reading through those menus you'd often find that you would never have been able to figure out a logical flow between those menu entries and the screen you were trying to get to. So, /1;5;13;1 would get you from anywhere to that screen.

So context menus were actually a big deal. People have a fairly good idea what's under the "File" or "Edit" menu (although options, configuration etc. seem to pop up in different places). Nowadays modern OSes are talking about more "spacially aware" interfaces. That is, the user picks up quickly where to find these things (though I would argue that the ribbon interface on MS Office lacks consistency and leaves the user wondering what was wrong with the good ol' context menus of yore) on a screen.

Enter Google with, while probably not that big a deal to most users, leaves me with a bad taste in my mouth. A backwards step. Instead of making the information easily accessible in a predictable place on the screen, suddenly they've decided it's best hidden behind 3 clicks.

The only reason to do this is if things are getting cluttered. i.e. if you have 5 applications installed on your Android phone, the apps interface probably isn't so bad. If you have 500 applications, the apps interface could probably do with some sort of contextual sorting.

Enter in the Unity interface - Ubuntu's abomination that really should be taken out to the woods and shot. Why do I hate it so much? One of my main reasons of it's use of "magic" keys. If you don't know about the keys, the interface is virtually unusable. In programming terms, we use sensibly named variables - we avoid magic numbers like the plague. An interface should follow suite (much of what makes Blender inaccessible to users is it's use of magic keys).

It turns out that to restrict results to a particular region, I can do a search typing in: site:co.nz at the end of it which will restrict it to results from domains with .co.nz. Okay - it's a solution. It's a particularly ugly one as you'd have to search around for it. It's a magic phrase. Utterances where a bold click was enough.

I guess I've now got to wonder - if I'm going through the trouble of learning these obscure utterances, is it now time to ditch Google as a search engine and go with something else? DuckDuckGo for example? Having tried alternatives in the past, I often find that I end up back at Google because I know what to expect. For example, doing a search for "Nevyn Hira" (yes, I'm really that vein) in DuckDuckGo gives me a pipl.com result first whereas on Google, it's a link to one of the posts on this blog (I'm not sure why it's that particular post). The blogpost probably says more about me than anything pipl.com might have to say.

What do I really want from a search engine?
  • To be private. I don't really care if the ads are targeted or not. I don't read them. That's a poor excuse for tracking my activity. In fact, I go through pains to make the ads not so visible.
  • I want to be able to customize it. For example, while searching there are often domains which seem to pop up more and more with unhelpful results. I would love to be able to say "I don't want any results from X website" (experts-exchange.com is a pain in the butt for example - while you can see the questions, you can't see the answers).
  • I want it to be easy to use and have sensible options (searching within a region for example).
  • I want it to be license aware i.e. I should be able to do a search on media released under creative commons licenses for example.
  • I would like - but do not need - the ability to have on display options of my choosing. i.e. Not everyone uses a region search but may have other search criteria that they apply to a mass of search results i.e. -porn (i.e. exclude anything with the word "porn" in it).
And while I'm pointing out a usability issue with Google... there's the interesting screen real estate issue. Compare the images below:



Why is half of my screen real estate always taken up by information that is sometimes there?

So it's now time to start searching for a suitable replacement. What are other people out there using?

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