Google simplifies but retains dead space

It is a commonly held view that the minimalist approach to design is what lifted Google, in the early days of the web, above the arguably better search results of engines such as Alta Vista.

The famous white page with the centered search box is iconic, but the subsequent pages, where Google delivers results have always been more problematic.

Of course, results pages retain the minimal Google corporate style, but the additional furniture; the log-in buttons; the search options; and most certainly the style variations required to distinguish paid links from natural search results, encroach on the minimalist aesthetic in a way that has never been entirely satisfactory.


Old-style Google search results

The biggest issue is the huge waste of screen real estate. Google’s search results are presented in a strict 1…2…3… listed hierarchy. For Google, position 1 is greater than position 2, 2 is greater than three and so on — although there is a school of thought that argues that many users skip the first result through an inherent distrust, and that consequently 2nd and 3rd spots are actually the most covetable.

This hierarchical approach means that Google employs a single column layout for its results. That works well for the mobile web, but for desktop users there is a huge wasteland of white space on the right-hand side of the screen and massive amounts of content below the fold.

This week Google introduced a subtle redesign to try and address some of these issues. Their aim, was to create consistency across devices; something most responsive design abandons with glee.

The vertical menu on the left has become a horizontal menu above the results. Superfluous data, such as location, has been removed. The search tools are still there, but you need to click to expand them. Most successfully the repetition of the ‘Search’ title has been removed — who needs to be told what they’re doing, let alone twice?


New-style Google search results, circa November 2012

Overall the update is a welcome change and it’s great to see a large corporation focusing so keenly on fine detail within design.

I do wonder however, why the menu was not moved to the top right, above the knowledge graph; that would have decreased wasted space and promoted at least one result above the fold.

A two column layout for results should have been possible too. A Formula 1 grid-style staggering of the results could have maintained the hierarchy.

The new design certainly feels fresher, that, if nothing else, is a win.

The .com site already displays the update with regional sites following soon.

What do you think of Google’s update? Will these revisions produce a positive return on investment? Let us know what you think in the comments.

Featured image/thumbnail, Minimalism with a twist image via Shutterstock

  • Jack Scotty

    I want to say Google has more plans to enhance their search page in the future, they’re just taking small steps slowly. But, of course, I don’t know that. The general public doesn’t seem to react nicely to immediate and dramatic change on sites they frequent (Facebook).

    As far as design strategy goes (or really anything web related), I’d put my money on Google.

    • Benjie

      You’re probably right, they are simply avoiding rocking the boat.

  • Nathan Hornby

    It’s not the easiest of problems to solve, given the context of their content.

    Problem being that they can’t stretch the content over a wider space, as it would impact readability, and creating multiple rows of results would have some unusual side-effects, I imagine (this should be an obvious problem area).

    Ultimately it’s not the kind of page that needs to benefit from large screen real estate, that’s why it doesn’t utilise it – the very nature of the content demands that there’s a certain level of hierarchy and placement. Unlike image results which do utilise the whole space. I wouldn’t have noticed anyway, as even though I use a 27″ iMac I don’t tend to full-screen things, that’s not really what the extra space is for, it’s not a telly.

    I was all ready to get angry about the use of ‘dead space’ over ‘white space’, but admittedly this is an accurate classification :)

    • Benjie

      I agree with you that a certain amount of hierarchy is required and a list is the simplest way to achieve this, but I don’t think it’s the only solution.

      If it is, then I’d be using up as much horizontal space as possible, to reduce the number of results below the fold. Titles to the left of descriptions for example.

  • Nathan Hornby

    This I’d agree with. No reason I can think of that it shouldn’t be centered.

  • Benjie

    I think it’s probably to ensure consistency across results pages; some terms have extra advertising, some have knowledge graphs etc. meaning that consistent spacing for a centered page would be very hard to achieve.

    There is a certain subliminal authority derived from maintaining the same left margin across the site.

  • Bastian Stalder

    The location setting for me is anything but superfluous. But maybe thinking outside the american box is needed to realize this.