Kevin Cheng  

The Perfect Search Engine Interface

July 16th, 2004 by Kevin Cheng :: see related comic

Last week, a friend of mine reminisced about how he could not access Google from his home due to some ISP issues. He could reach anywhere else - Yahoo or MSN, for example - but not Google. He likened it to losing your glasses and even went so far as to say that the internet is useless without Google. Rather than using other search engines, he simply felt helpless. Obviously, Google’s technology has solidified them as the leader of search engines but Google has also been applauded for its minimalist design. Some sites, such as Alta Vista, followed suit with similar interfaces yet others seemed to move into more feature laden and complex interfaces. This diversity begs the question: what is the perfect search engine interface?In addition to the popular search engines, many new visualizations and creative takes on search are in the works. A quick overview of the field:

Google: The single search engine bar with little else. In addition, Google offers desktop bars and browser toolbars.

Vivisimo: A tree structure separates your search results into topics. It’s worth mentioning that a search for OK/Cancel yields “Interface Your Fears” as a topic all on its own.

Vivisimo Screenshot

Yahoo!: In addition to their searching, we know Yahoo! for their hand picked web directory that functions like an online Yellow Pages.

Yahoo! Screenshot

MSN: Both Yahoo! and MSN have search engines visible at the top of a very busy page that offers anything from movie promotions to tips on better living.

A9: Using Google as its search base for now, Amazon’s A9 integrates related books to your searching.

A9 Screenshot

Kartoo: Another visualization of search results, Kartoo uses subject maps to link search results and help you refine your search.

Kartoo Screenshot

Lycos: Perhaps the most bizarre … or maybe the most logical cross selling a search engine could do. In the US, the front page prominently offers a portal to adult 18+ content. Well that’s one way to get traffic.

Lycos Screenshot

Blinkx: Not so much an online search engine as a tool for your desktop. Like GMail, it offers search suggestions as you do your work but instead of only doing your e-mail, this does so whenever you’re browsing, e-mailing, or even going through local files. The index is still very early but the concept is interesting.

Copernic: Why search one when you can search a few engines simultaneously? Copernic is a desktop and browser toolbar that searches through multiple search engines - of your choice.

What sticks and what goes is still anyone’s guess. Although the majority do use Google, I know of those who like the additional categorization of some of the fancier search engines and those that simply prefer the results other engines yield. Many browsers offer easy access to a number of search engines and even to specific sites like E-bay, IMdb and Amazon.

With so many contenders out there though, it’s clear that at least some people don’t feel Google has the perfect search engine interface. What are your requirements for your ideal search engine?

19 Responses to “The Perfect Search Engine Interface”
Arthur Law wrote:

FYI: MSN’s response to

Sorry, no results were found containing “”

Did you intend to go to one of these similar Web addresses?


Z wrote:


you did not mention Alltheweb and Teoma.
Both are worth a shot…


Devendra wrote:

UK Search Engine is a great UK based search engine that is worthwhile checking out for its intutive interface.

Dermo wrote:

Arguing over search engines eventually becomes like arguing over ice ceam flavours - in the end its whatever you like. Personally, I use Google for closest word matching but yahoo when looking for a list of alternatves where a directory of the relevant topics is useful. However, I’ve worked in an envireonment that ridiculed my reliance on such simple choices. They used which submits searches to multiple engines. So, chocolate, vanilla or strawberry?

Jesse wrote:

Are there any published studies on how search engines or search techniques compare and which are more efficient, using appropriate metrics?

I disagree slightly with the “iced cream” analogy. A better analogy might be in what language to code some software. Different languages have various advanages/disadvantates, so, given one knows all search techniques and tools equally, which ones would be chosen for the task at hand?

Moi wrote:

Err, why is the “Adults 18+” link in a different colour on the Lycos page image? :-P

Chris McEvoy wrote:

One search method that often gets overlooked is one of the most common ones: Ask a friend.

Kevin Cheng wrote:

Are there any published studies on how search engines or search techniques compare and which are more efficient, using appropriate metrics?

Many of the search engines with the newer visualizations are quite new so I’d guess there hasn’t been any studies involving them. I’ve heard some done on Yahoo! and Google but those are more related to the actual search results on the first few pages than the interface.

I think Jesse’s point about the ice cream flavours is quite accurate, Dermo. Even you mention that you’re using Yahoo for one use and Google for another so you’re using a different tool for a different task which is really what I was getting at. There may be no perfect search engine interface at all because we all have different needs at different times.

Thanks to those who mentioned search engines I might have missed. Obviously, there’s a lot out there and it’s hard to cover them all.

The 18+ link is “visited” because we couldn’t believe they’d actually put up boobies within two clicks of the front page of a search engine. Sadly, they do. Thankfully, tech savvy children are probably using Google.

One search method that often gets overlooked is one of the most common ones: Ask a friend.

I think there’s truth in that of course but generally speaking, I still end up googling in addition. I may ask, “what TV do you think I should buy?” and then proceed to look up the specs for TVs suggested or I may ask, “waht is the best digital camera review site?” and subsequently, still do a search to get even more sites.

Lada Gorlenko wrote:

It’s more about the criteria of “goodness” then flavour preferences — ever met someone who loves both strawberries and ice-cream, but hates strawberry-flavoured ice-cream? Try using what’s known in my group as The Big6 usability criteria to see why you prefer yahooing to googling (or whatever). 1-to-5 score an engine on each criterion. If you prefer, rank the criteria on their importance to you and calculate the weighted result:

Ease of use (intuitive, matches my cognitive model)
Ease of learning (how long it takes to discover and learn the features)
Efficiency (fast, reliable)
Effectiveness (search functionality, richness and quality of the results)
Trust (serving users before sponsors)
Satisfaction (here comes the overall flavoured impression)

Google is on top (or second-best) of my list on all criteria. But (oh, girl!), the emotional attachment to logo-metamorphoses beats any intelligent score! :-)

Craig M. Rosenblum wrote:

Google is still top dog for two reasons.

1. The interface does not interfere with the results.
2. Good to High Quality Results
3. Merchandising/Advertising is non-abrasive.

All of which leads to a good experience, and that doing over a 1-5 year period of time, creates a brand.

Myself, I have worked on creating site searches, to help ecommerce sites allow customers to search themselves, and there really is no guidelines…

Let’s face it i have not heard of any serious site search, or search usability/design guidelines, both in the tools/interfaces or in the results layout….

I mean assuming you have great results…

Evan Rowlands wrote: has a nice feature of allowing you to see all the logical thesaurus structure in a word search which is very useful if you happen to want to search other sites (like google or yahoo) that don’t have quite as good like term relations in there searches. It also allows you to see what everyone else is searching for… which is kind-of weird (you have been warned).

Nico Macdonald wrote:

Another visually-driven search engine is Grokker, which is a fat client that runs on Windows and MacOS X. I wrote about this in my Eye article Information visualisation Nico Macdonald, Eye, No 49, Vol 13, Autumn 2003. At the time it was too slow (taking over a minute to launch) but I note that version 2.1 is now available for MacOS X and it would be worth revisiting.

For me, the bigger issue is: why are we so reliant on search? Why do people worship Google when its user experience is generally so poor? And what do we lose by searching rather than browsing? (My criticism of Google in a Second Sight column in Guardian Online provoke some howls of protest.)

I don’t believe that in future we will be so search-focused, and guess it is a testament to the lack of dynamic in Web and Internet-connected tools, protocols and codes that we are stuck with navigation models people barely engage with.

For now navigation can’t beat search. In future might we develop anticipative models of information provision, which suggest information one might want? (Perhaps this is what Blinkx does.) I would also like searches or queries to be initiated from within applications (a bit like the FlySwat tool that was big some years back). Or even have applications, such as word processors, flag up information about or links to further information on key concepts/words/terms in a text. Of course this could be annoying, but we have got to improve on the current Google models.

Kevin Cheng wrote:

BBC has a nice roundup of Google, Ask Jeeves, A9, MSN and Yahoo in thier article entitled: Search Wars - Which is the Best?.

Terry Sullivan wrote:

What are your requirements for your ideal search engine?

As any UI pro knows, the canonical answer is: it depends!

Searches differ, even for a single searcher. Most often, the otherwise typical SE user is after a quick answer (known in the search trade as high precision). Other times, that same user may be in the market for a detailed, comprehensive search on a particular topic (known as high recall). Still other times, that same user may be interested in learning more about the larger intellectual structure of the topic being researched (essentially, searching for the “right question,” rather than the “right answer).

And it’s probably true that there is no one search engine, or one search interface, that will support all three types of searches equally well. Google’s market dominance is probably attributable to the fact that they tend to provide consistently high precision results for the broadest base of users.

(Though, for my money, when I want to get an honest-to-gawd answer, I turn to Language Computer Corp’s awesome question answering technology.)

lee spurgeon wrote:

I want to cancel yahoo task bar. Please advise ASAP…Thank you

DeLores Gonzales wrote:

Please cancel yahoo toolbar. Thank you.DeLores

DeLores Gonzales wrote:

Please cancel yahoo toolbar. Thank you.DeLores

Jason Fields wrote:

In your detailed landscape of the various search sites, you neglected to mention SNAP a new structured data search site. It empowers you to do both refinement type searches, and meta (or wide area) searches simultaneously!

I use Google (most recently by habit), but I have been moving to SNAP more and more (when I conduct searches, I balance them by trying the search on both Google and SNAP). The latest feature/functionality to have been rolled out is the related keywords generated as your typing your intial search query. So, as you are entering your search term, you start to see a whole slew of additional searches that can be created from your root search. In some cases your search may be rendered even before your done typing it.

Case and point, my friend was looking for Paseo Colorado (a shopping mall here in Pasadena), he a) did not know the complete name, only ‘Paseo’ something… b) habitually uses Google and so when he searched there he got a whole bunch of non structured results, mostly confusing and clicked around to try and find the right one… c) went over to SNAP and as he was typing in the P-A-S-E… the related keywords list generates ‘Paseo Colorado’ as the first choice on the keywords list, clicks the link, and voila… mapquest map, information links, stores at Paseo colorado, restaurants… Its a pretty compelling story about SNAPs value proposition.

But, I let you all make the call. Check it out!

Sunnan wrote:

Arthur; all of those are at levenshtein distance one from “goglge” (and they probably exist because they themselves are at levenshtein distance one from “google”, too).

“google” and “goglge”, however, are at levenshtein distance two from each other and as such are not likely to be found similar by most search engines.

(Yeah, I hate MSN, too, didn’t mean to defend them. Sorry.)

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OK/Cancel is a comic strip collaboration co-written and co-illustrated by Kevin Cheng and Tom Chi. Our subject matter focuses on interfaces, good and bad and the people behind the industry of building interfaces - usability specialists, interaction designers, human-computer interaction (HCI) experts, industrial designers, etc. (Who Links Here) ?