washingtonpost.com
Ever So Humble
The Heart of Google's Wild Success Is a Home Page of Calculated Simplicity

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.

Yahoo, by contrast, has been adding ever more features to its home page, from expanded e-mail to local weather to lists of hot movies and restaurants. "We're giving users everything they need to be efficient on the Web and, more and more, bringing it to one place," said Yahoo spokeswoman Meagan Busath. "Users really appreciate the breadth of services on the page."

Google loyalists, such as Simone Parrish of Bethesda, demur. Parrish adamantly prefers the clarity of Google's home page, which she suggested reflects a focused company mission. "Adding more to the page would be upsetting," she said. "I find a lot of other Internet portal home pages overwhelming. I really like not having all those other services coming at me."

Even what appear to be small revisions on Google's home page require detailed review by a team of engineers, Web page designers and product managers who report to Mayer. Their analysis draws on data collected from monthly studies of how test subjects use the site.

Google also runs as many as 10 subtly different American home pages at once so researchers can evaluate proposed changes. Decisions about the home page content are considered so consequential that Mayer's recommendations are forwarded to chief executive Eric E. Schmidt and co-presidents Larry Page and Sergey Brin for final ratification.

Since the Google home page debuted, features have come and gone. Services that failed to become star performers were booted off. The company's shopping service, Froogle, and its discussion forum, Google Groups, were relegated in August to a secondary menu, which can be called up by clicking on the "more" button. Mayer said they had not attracted enough user attention.

Executives have grown more selective as the company has matured. "The bar is higher for getting on to the home page," she said. Services should now attract more than 10 million page views a day and be used by a majority of visitors over the course of a week to retain home-page billing.

Today, the only features to make the grade and be included as buttons above the main search box are for searches of the Web, Images, Video, Maps and News.

Mayer contended it would be pointless to crowd the page with too many distractions. "We really believe people are going to remember only five to seven services," she said. "Educating them about more than that will lead to nothing but user confusion."

Google has also wrestled with how to highlight other emerging services as it has expanded beyond search, now, for instance, weighing whether to add the e-mail service, Gmail, as a button on the home page. Doing so could shatter the symmetry of the page because the other services displayed are all for Web searches.

This issue may ultimately be resolved as Google redesigns its home page in the next few years, Mayer said. The company expects to remake the layout, showcase some different services and change the way users navigate through the site. But she stressed that Google does not expect the page to get much heavier, instead limiting the number of words to a relatively svelte 50 or so.

Nor do company executives expect to abandon the colorful Google logo , which they gaily deck out for holidays. She added that these festive adornments, along with "I'm Feeling Lucky" and the Goooooooooogle at the bottom of search results and ads, are the spirit in the Google machine and will continue to be a sentimental selling point for a corporation that, ironically, built its success on the cold mathematical calculations of a search algorithm.

View all comments that have been posted about this article.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company