Search engines are outdated. All other web based services have improved and developed over time. Webapps have become more like desktop applications with fancy animations, drag and drop and all sorts of great features, but search engines still retain the basic format they had when they first appeared.
All search engines are pretty much the same in terms of how the results are delivered. They are static pages with a list of text results, a search box on top and additional pages on the bottom. Obviously there’s a great deal that can be improved. Some search engines are much more innovative in the way information is presented, such as ask.com and the much hyped cuil.com.
ask.com has many notable features. It’s the only search engine (that I know of) that actually detects your screen resolution and takes advantage of wasted space. All other search engines simply leave swaths of wasted space if you are one of the many who have higher resolution monitors. It also displays helpful suggestions to narrow and expand your search on the left, and, if you’ve got enough pixels, widget like blocks with news, images, dictionary, synonyms, and encyclopedia terms related to a search term. In addition, instead of scrolling the engine page, search box and all, the navigation acts like a toolbar, allowing easy access when at the bottom of the page. The only thing that could be improved is if they extended this concept to the search pages. It also has a very useful preview feature that allows you to scope out a page before clicking. It’s also got a useful search history, which is useful, for lack of better ways to expand upon the idea.
cuil.com is that much hyped new browser created by former Googlers. The search is pretty bad, but I’m only focusing on user interface for now. Cuil has a refreshing user interface and is much more fun to use than boring text results like the other search engines. Its design seems rather forward thinking in that it takes advantage of horizontal screen real estate more than Google, Yahoo and Windows Live. After all, if you can set options to show results as text or icons on your computer, why not on the web? It functions much more like Windows Explorer in the way the results can be displayed, as results can be sorted into columns. However, it does not allow the option to change into text results, which can be a problem.
There’s a few other sites such as Yahoo Alpha and Searchmash that implement a customizable sidebar, but the customization options could be much improved.
But really what these search engines have done is just the tip of the iceberg. So much more can be done to improve search. Here are just some ideas for improving the feature set of search engines.
- Stationary navigation and search box. When you search on the computer and scroll through the results, does the navigation disappear? It stays on top so you can easily modify your search. Cuil gets this right.
- Modifiable sidebar. Ask gets this right. Windows Live tries, but the implementation isn’t nearly as good as Ask’s. But a sidebar could do so so much more. Essentially you could add custom search widgets. For example, if you want a glance of images along with your results, add an image widget. Users can also submit custom widgets for their sites or for well known sites like Wikipedia. Some other widgets could be definition, antonym and synonym, encyclopedia, or news.
- Easily accessible advanced search . All search engines create a huge disconnect when users want to select advanced search. Most lead to another page, and Ask creates an irritating popup which disappears. The problem is that for all of these advanced search features, the advanced search box just disappears after searching, leaving less skilled users with custom tags like -,”", +, site:, link: etc. Few are familiar with all of the modifiers to fully take advantage of the features. Advanced search options should slide down from under the search box, much like Vista’s advanced search, and it should remain until the user chooses to close it.
- Search suggestions. Every search engine needs them.
- Search other sites. Suppose you search many different sites, you can add options to search other sites from within the search engine.
- Results view option. The ability to switch between thumbnails and list view would be great. I’m tired of text.
- Some sort of self improving cloud thing – Like Apple’s Genius feature, but with search. Basically instead of improving a music selection algorithm (lame), it would improve search. I’m not quite sure how this could work, but it’s possible.
- Stationary advertisements on the left. It would improve visibility and clicks, so everyone benefits. Results would stay in the middle.
- Change results per page. Use a slider like the magnification on in Office 2007.
- Notepad. Windows Live, Google and Tafiti have one, but each only works for a particular search, such as images or web. This feature should be available for all kinds of search, and could be stored along with a web history.
If I had the skill I would definitely try to throw something together. These are great (I think) ideas that would really improve web search.