Ever So Humble

By Alan Sipress
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, October 3, 2006

Ever since Google Inc.'s famously spartan home page was released for public testing eight years ago, it has featured a prominent button beneath the search box giving users the cocky option of "I'm Feeling Lucky."

Google executives have long known that almost no one uses it.

But the company has no plans to evict "I'm Feeling Lucky," which whisks users directly to the top Web page matching their search query, even though this feature faces mounting competition from other Google services that could benefit from display on one of the most precious tracts of Internet real estate.

"If we took it away, there would be mass protests worldwide," said Marissa Mayer, vice president for search products and user experience. "It's part of our heritage. It's part of what users really like about us."

Google's dedication to "I'm Feeling Lucky" underscores the strategic value the company places on the look of its home page and its emotional bond with users, a fundamental asset that trumps even the temptation to promote more services or run advertising there.

As Google moves beyond Web search and becomes more like rivals Yahoo and MSN -- Google already offers more than four dozen product lines -- it faces increasing pressure to make every pixel on its home page count. Yet the button stays because it is considered an essential ingredient on a page that couples calculated quirkiness with stark simplicity in attracting, according to ComScore Media Metrix, about 82.1 million American visitors a month.

In user studies, Google loyalists volunteer that "I'm Feeling Lucky" offers a touch of whimsy and reassurance that the company doesn't take itself too seriously even after growing into a multibillion-dollar behemoth.

But Mayer said the button is used in far fewer than 1 percent of Google searches. When company testers have asked users if they know what it does, many say no, executives recount. When told the button will help them speed past the usual list of search results, they say they're still not interested.

Rivals have packed their home pages with flashy color and prose designed to draw users deeper into their sites and sample a range of services and products. At Google, the prized place accorded to "I'm Feeling Lucky" is especially striking because the company has strived to keep its home page stripped almost bare of words and graphics.

The home page was designed to come up quick and clean, with an elegance Mayer likens to a closed Swiss Army knife. Although some people were originally confused by the unusual simplicity of the page, unsure in tests whether it had fully loaded, users have chided Google over the years when they felt too much text had been added.

In the summer of 2001, Mayer received a mysterious e-mail containing only the numeral 37. Subsequent e-mails arrived with other numerals. Finally, when one came with an added message -- "Getting a little heavy, aren't we?" -- Mayer said, she realized someone had been tallying the number of words on the home page.

Google had been adding more text to the page, promoting company jobs, advertising and other services until the number of words had reached the mid-50s. "Users really began squawking at us," she recounted. Now, she said, "we're trying to keep the number of words down." As of yesterday, the home page contained 33.

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