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FutureNow Article
Thursday, Jun. 5, 2008

What You Never Noticed About Google’s Homepage

By Robert Gorell
June 5th, 2008

google split testing results

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:


google homepage original

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:

google homepage copyright split test

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.

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Comments (27)

  1. Er, guys … I hate to be the one to say it, but, there IS a Copyright sign on the Beta page (it says Copyright c 1998 Google Inc).

  2. Al,

    I know that it’s on the beta page. If I’d have pointed out the “most innovative feature” in the first screen shot, there wouldn’t be much reason for me to ask people to guess which one it was, would there? ;)

    I pointed out the copyright assurance on the second screen shot to illustrate that it’s been a consistent feature since they first implemented it in 1998. Perhaps I could have been more clear in terms of how I phrased it, or explained why I showed a current screen shot to illustrate Mayer’s point.

    Sorry for the confusion!

  3. Al,

    After thinking a bit more about your comment, I’ve clarified it a bit by keeping it about the 1998 homepage. (I reckon people already know what Google’s current homepage looks like, even if they don’t notice the copyright. :) )

  4. I wondered why such a big company as Google would have such an ugly homepage? Plain,Colorless,Boring. I found that Google is about information,not looks, such as other search engines.So I will use Google to search and Yahoo as a homepage for looks. No offence; just that Google for a Homepage is boring for me.

  5. I use Google’s home page as my home page because it loads so fast. The clean design keeps me focused on why I opened it up: to search for something I was curious abot.

  6. @Burt

    You can try to install google toolbar into your browser, I think it’s much more easier for you to search something :)

  7. I concur with Burt that google’s clean and uncluttered design is important still today, but think back to 1998.

    Back in the days of dialup (or even 14.4), a 300K homepage would take 30 seconds or more to load. The google homepage was refreshingly fast.

    Google’s simple elegance has separated it from the search engines that wanted to shove junk down our throats, not to mention any…MSN…names. ;-)

    I never would have thought about the copyright making such a difference for Google. Now that’s Brilliant!

    Vi Wickam
    Zello Partners
    Online Marketing for Real Business

  8. When Google had one function, I liked the simple design. Now it gets annoying having to use a dropdown every time I want to search google finance or scholar (on the positive side, at least they HAVE a dropdown now. For a long time I’d generally do a search for “finance” in order to get to Google Finance, THEN do my search).

    Time for a little more user testing, IMHO — 1998 is over.

  9. Great post Robert. Product design is one of those disciplines that everyone believes they know how to do. Why? Well because everybody uses products. I have learned that the test and learn process is not only the smartest way to get to the right answer that fastest, but it is also the easiest way to avoid debillitating internal debate about the right product design that usually includes everyone including the janitor. Everyone has an opinion, but of course, the only opinion that counts is the opinion (or the actions) of the majority of your target market. Again, nice post.

    Steve Woda


  10. Thanks Robert for, as usual, separating the urgent from the important for us – your blog is a testament to the latter.


  11. @Dave
    still opening up a google page for search? That’s sooo 2007 ;)

    If you don’t like using Google as a homepage, here’s a couple of suggestions. Either try iGoogle – just add /ig to the end of the domain name. Lots of pretty pictures & just the info you want

    or install Google Desktop. Every time you need a search (or have a thought that needs answering) just double tap the Ctrl key & up pops a Google search box. type away, hit enter & your browser will appear with the SERPs page in seconds. Nice.

    After a couple of days/weeks it’s hard to imagine being without it.

  12. Amazing! I am sold on Google’s principle of simplicity. Some sites are so hard on the eyes, it’s difficult to focus and find what you need.
    I have stopped visiting some such sites, although the content there was good, I just couldn’t bear the pressure on my eyes.

  13. Never thought of this, but it’s a good point. Everybody should be testing all the time. Thanks for making this a “Must See”. I’ll be digging your archive for some more now :)

  14. The testing that Google performed shows us why they’ve reached such heights. It should also remind us of one of the key advantages of the web. To test or material and tweak it. We can revise copy on our sites not just to improve rankings, but also the human response. With a catalog or television ad, most of us can’t afford to keep tweaking it. Otherwise we’re left having to print new catalogs or film new commercials.

  15. I like your points Robert, and better yet, that was one of the best explainations on the importants of testing made simple I think I might have ever seen.

    I’ed google and you are right on target. In 2005 they made no less than two updates a day everyday sometimes many, many, more in one day!

    Take what you can from that but I think your right on Robert!

  16. you have to look at and than look for the oldest layout. is very funny.

  17. I’m just learning about the online world, which for newbies is truly a whole new world. I don’t even know what I don’t know! Reading your posts makes the simple things seem obvious, but I never would have noticed them on my own. Thanks.

  18. I agree; simplicity is the best way!

  19. Keep it simple…isn’t it always so with everything in life?

  20. [...] Mayer, vice president of search products and user experience at Google talks about the testing (read the entire article here): [Our beta testers] would sit in front of the Google screen for 15 seconds, 30 seconds, 45 [...]

  21. I think the best part of Google is the plain and simple style of their website as a whole.

    Whenever I go to MSN or Yahoo for whatever reason, they certainly aren’t my preferred choice for search, I’m always taken aback by how long the pages take to load, OK we’re not talking about minutes but if you compare it to the Google load time it seems like an eternity.

    Thanks for showing us the old Google logo, took me back to the 90s :)

  22. [...] des éléments de la page pour rien. On pert également la ligne du copyright, alors même que Marissa Mayer affirmait que c’était indispensable pour indiquer que la page était pleinement chargée. Enfin, [...]

  23. My friend’s dad is high up in IBM, and he always said that Google is simply a portal. You don’t need all that other stuff out there, people just want a simply portal to the web. That is the genius of Google. They were bold enough to stay the same!

  24. “One woman even thought the Web site was a fake construction that was part of a psychology experiment.”

    LOL. The web really has come a long way. But the classic Google homepage is always a reminder of how good things are and how some things always remain constant.

  25. a simply portal to the Perhaps I could in they certainly aren’t my preferred that other stuff out have been more clear there, people just want web choice for search, I’m always terms of how I phrased it

  26. Agreed, simplicity is great but it’s not always an option. Not putting enought information on a webpage may cause problem depending an the market your in.

  27. I use Google’s home page as my home page because it loads so fast. The clean design keeps me focused on why I opened it up: to search for something I was curious about.

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