Vol. 9 No. 3 March 2001
Google, Disintermediation, and the Palm Beach Ballot
by Richard Wiggins Senior Information Technologist Michigan State University
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When the struggle broke out over recounting Florida's votes in the 2000 presidential election, many people fell quickly into predictable camps based on their political leanings. One side tended to emphasize disenfranchisement in Palm Beach due to the design of the now-infamous "butterfly ballot." The other side tended to emphasize the rules: If you can't follow the voting rules in plain English, you don't deserve to vote, let alone get another shot at it.

My take on the whole brouhaha comes more from a statistical perspective. I read a mathematician's persuasive op-ed piece in The New York Times explaining that the Florida vote was by any fair measure a tie the margin of error in the polling methods exceeded the margin of victory, whichever victor one might choose through post-election remedies. One hopes that Florida and the nation will make good on the promise to improve badly outdated equipment and procedures, so that in future elections, the margin of error will almost always amount to less than the vote differential.

The other lesson from all this is that design matters. Design experts examined the butterfly ballot and pointed out how the opposing-page-with-linear-choices orientation flew in the face of common sense and the way we read from left to right, one column at a time, in English printing practice.

When art meets design, the question always arises of whether form follows function. But good designers care a great deal about whether a given design for a ballot, or the radio controls in a Lexus RX-300, or a Web form misleads users. It isn't a question of whether some users are stupid. It's a matter of looking at a large population of users, and if the design misleads, trying to improve it to lower the aggregate error rate. Even elegant design fails if it causes confusion. Design matters for all kinds of human-machine interfaces in general and all computer interfaces. We're still trying to perfect the perfect mouse or "pointing device."

So what's all this got to do with online searching?

We live in a paradoxical age a time of disintermediation, yet also a time when a national newspaperreports employment of reference librarians in the United States at an all-time high. But the Web revolution has created a new generation of searchers, both those searching Web content and using Web interfaces on the open free Web to those using traditional commercial databases, often on the Web. To the extent that database searching continues to move to the desktops of end users, design can be as important as training in how effective those users' searches are.

One of the strengths professional online searchers bring to the party is knowing which sources to search where are the best haystacks? But another equally important asset is knowing how to conduct the search how best to find the needles?

As searching moves to the desktops of end users, it's vitally important that all information professionals involved understand both aspects. Depending on the nature of the audience, the stakes can rise very high. An engineer doing a poor online search may fail to find the optimal choice in materials and may design a structure that eventually fails. An attorney doing a poor online search may fail to find the key relevant precedent and lose a high-profile case. A physician doing a poor online search may miss a detail about drug interactions and lose a patient.

Librarians who support professions such as engineering, law, or medicine should care a lot about this. They should and do take the lead in educating their users in the right sources. Most research physicians will automatically choose MEDLINE over a random Internet site. Most lawyers (especially those who graduated law school in the last 15 years) know to use LEXIS-NEXIS or Westlaw.

But do these professional end users know the quirks of these databases the little navigational subtleties that searcher librarians learn? The more powerful the tool, the greater the need for training. An untrained person holding a BB gun is nowhere near as dangerous as one wielding an Uzi. Or have the Web designers for these traditional databases incorporated these subtleties to make learning them unnecessary for end-user searchers? The impact of design failures can be greatly magnified in the hands of an unskilled user.

It's not sufficient to train the end user in database idiosyncrasies. We must also keep pressure on the vendors to get the interface right. We can't all become Jacob Nielsens, beating the drum of effective (but conservative) design. But we can let vendors know, publicly and privately, when that JavaScript rollover or Flash animation or poorly chosen pick list or inadequate relevancy ranking causes end users to make mistakes that affect lives. And in the most important cases, librarians should still do the searching.

Now let's consider the example of a Web-based service whose commitment to simplicity, coupled with powerful, effective technology, has won millions of users.

An Example: Google and Design
The relatively new search engine Google has captured the eyeballs of millions of searchers worldwide. How did they do it? Very simple. In fact, the Google interface has always been a model of simplicity. While in the last 2 years most of the major search engines have been morphing into portals and generating ever more bewildering arrays of choices for their users, Google has arisen from the research work of two Stanford University students and taken the Web world by storm.

Paradoxically, this engine appeals equally well to the neophyte as well as the experienced searchers. Google has built a Web search service that works best with the kinds of queries real users actually tend to enter: simple, non-Boolean queries that represent a quick rendering of what a user wants to find.

When you type "Bill Clinton" into Google, it assumes that you want pages that contain both "bill" and "clinton." The search isn't treated as a phrase search, but, by assuming that all search terms are to be ANDed, Google avoids the problem of mixing into the hit list all the pages about dollar bills, duck bills, bills in Congress, and DeWitt Clinton, the New York governor who built the Erie Canal. And Google doesn't make any assumptions other than that for instance, the search will match terms regardless of case. AltaVista, by contrast, tracks on the case you enter. If a hapless user searches for "BILL CLINTON," he or she will miss most matching pages.

Google's other simple but powerful approach is to give extremely high credence to the number of links it finds to a given URL as it builds the hit list. Google is not the only search engine to use popularity of a page as part of the relevancy ranking algorithm, but it may apply this methodology most aggressively. Do a search for a common word or phrase "Searcher" or "White House" or "Jay Leno" and Google will much more likely find you a page endorsed by the links of the global community of Web users.

The combination of these two simple design elements requiring all search terms to be present and ranking by link count is extraordinarily powerful in coping with an ever-expanding Web. Google helps expert and novice searchers find popular, or official, or commercial sites much more effectively than any competitor.

It's hard to overstate Google's emphasis on simplicity compared to the models used by its competitors. To see what I mean, you need merely visit the Google home page alongside the AltaVista page. The other major portals are no less guilty; Disney has spilt considerable blood trying to make a coherent search service, subject directory, and portal to the vast proprietary content of a media giant. (Sam Donaldson and Mickey Mouse on the same page; what a concept!)

Despite the devotion to simplicity, the folks at Google have been quietly adding features to the service. Originally introduced sans advertising, the service now displays ads albeit discreetly. Interestingly, unlike all their competitors, Google displays the ads only when the search terms seem to directly relate to the ad in question. For instance, a search for "Internet Archive" yielded no advertisement. A search for "long distance," however, brought up, to the right of the hit list, a list of "Sponsored Links" (so labeled) that offered discount long-distance telephone service. Other search portals show ads all the time, from the home page to every page showing hits. (Of course, when they can do so, all the search portals tie the ads displayed to the user's search terms.)

Another Google addition is the new "Google Web Directory." This subject catalog leverages the taxonomy developed by the Open Directory project. Back when there was some idealism left in the Netscape corporation, Open Directory was launched as a sort of open source Internet cataloging effort. The utopian theory behind the project intended to apply the same model that allows individuals worldwide to contribute to the development of Linux: An "army of editors" would scale the growth of the Open Directory to the growth of the Web. Yahoo!'s editorial staff could not grow at the same pace. (Of course, the editors are unpaid volunteers.)

The Open Directory project allows free use of the database. Google has taken the Open Directory categories and entries and applied its technologies, such as link-count page ranking, to subject-oriented browsing. Google says their rendition of the Open Directory has 1.5 million URLs in the catalog or about 1/1000th the number of URLs in the main Google search index.

Google touts its directory as a unique combination of searching and category browsing, and in some ways it is. For instance I searched among the "Newspapers" looking for "Decatur" several states that have towns called Decatur and got a good list of Decatur newspapers. But in the "Magazines" category I did a search for "DV," the name of a magazine devoted to digital video, and Google delivered a hit list with many false matches. A structured bibliographic database, this isn't. Somewhat surprisingly, a search in the main Google index for that short search term found the DV Magazine Web site as the first hit. (I suspect the combination of link popularity as well as the fact that the domain is boosted the right item to the top of the list.)

The most recent addition to Google's features really surprised me: Google has finally added an advanced search feature. See to try it out. With a simple Web form, Google delivers to end users a great deal of power:

  • The ability to search for phrases, to do AND or OR combinations of search terms, and to exclude pages with unwanted terms.
  • The ability to limit searches to titles, URLs, or full page text.
  • Filtering by language of the source page.
  • Filtering by Internet domain.
  • Filtering by "SafeSearch," a SurfWatch-based filter for objectionable material.
In addition, the Google Advanced Search offers the ability to search for pages similar to one a user has encountered and to generate a list of pages that link to a given URL. (Oddly, the link search appears seriously deficient: It failed to find links to; AltaVista finds 170,000.)

With all these new features, is Google doomed to end up like the other search portals, with a Christmas tree of hyperlinks and search options confronting the poor user? I don't think so. The folks at Google seem to have a strong instinct for minimalism. The new features have been added very unobtrusively. This, to me, is the secret of a powerful interface: Give most users the features they need most readily and make other features available to those who need them without burdening the casual user or novice with interface choices they can't understand.

Google offers an undaunting service with a gentle learning curve. I suspect many high-end Web designers scoff at its simplicity; the Google home page is so bereft of glitz and fancy graphics, it's almost a throwback to 1995. (But its graphic artists do produce some mighty cute seasonal logos; see My guess is that librarians teaching search engines in Internet classes are flocking to it, as are their patrons. And I think it's a safe bet that Google, through relentless pursuit of simplicity, will continue to beat the established search portals at their game. I don't expect any Palm Beach Ballots from the folks at Google.

Richard Wiggins's e-mail address is

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