We all take the Google homepage for granted.
It’s so remarkably simple that (unless you’re, say, a blogger for a website optimization firm) it’s unremarkable; just a text box, two call to action buttons, and a few links that most humans don’t even look at, let alone use. That’s all.
But why? Why is it that the Google homepage has barely changed in the past decade? Are they obsessed with minimalism, or is there more to the story?
From its humble origins as a research project by a couple of Stanford graduate students, Sergei Brin and Larry Page always knew that testing matters. They realized that it’s not just important to build a good online experience, but that they would need to know why it worked in order to make it better.
Take a look at Google’s 1998 homepage and see if you can guess its most innovative feature:
Got your answer? Feeling lucky (hint: that’s not it)? Great. Now hold that thought.
Speaking at the Google I/O conference last week, Marissa Mayer, vice president of search products and user experience at Google, explained how the company developed a culture of testing, insisting that, “On the Web in general, [creating sites] is much more a design than an art. You can find small differences and mathematically learn which is right.”
The CNet article (also linked to above) details some of Google’s many innovations from their years of A/B split testing. Their results illustrate one of our mantras here at FutureNow: “Believe what they do, not what they say they will do.” For instance, users claimed they wanted to see more search results per page, but testing proved otherwise. You can read the article for details on that one, but I digress. The homepage example remains the most telling. Here’s how Mayer tells it:
[Our beta testers] would sit in front of the Google screen for 15 seconds, 30 seconds, 45 seconds, a minute…Google was perplexed.
So Mayer would eventually intervene and ask what was holding up the searchers. “I’m waiting for the rest of it,” they’d say. Clearly they expected more of the flashy ads and busy text of other search pages of the 1990s.
“The very first home page was that misunderstood. People didn’t resonate with it,” Mayer said. One woman even thought the Web site was a fake construction that was part of a psychology experiment. As a result, the company put a copyright notice at the bottom of the page. “It’s not there for legal reasons,” Mayer said. “It’s there as punctuation. That’s it. (It tells the searcher) ‘Nothing else is coming; please start searching now.’”
So here it is, the big innovation they came up with back in 1998:
Amazing. Just showing a copyright assurance is what gives us the confidence to proceed.
Mayer said a lot of insightful things in her presentation, but this quote struck me:
“The urgent can drown out the important.”
So true. With website optimization, what seems to be of urgent and of vital importance from your company’s perspective may not at all be what’s urgent and vital to your visitors. In fact, your visitors may not even know what they’d fix about your website if they could.
Who among us would have told Google back in 1998 that they should try putting a copyright symbol on the homepage? [*Hears crickets chirping in background.*] Exactly. And that’s why developing hypotheses and testing from the visitor’s perspective is a must.
Editor’s Note: FutureNow is an “authorized consultant” for Google Website Optimizer. (We’re writing the book on it.) To learn about which of our optimization services will best help you boost conversion rates and other key performance metrics, please contact us for a free consultation.