Today, without planning to, I visited the Google home page, then also Yahoo and Bing. They don?t look like each other at all. I think, first of all, that Yahoo is the past, Google the present, Bing the future. And second, that it doesn?t matter much.

There are probably many young people, young Web designers even, who don?t know why Google?s default home page is so stark and empty. I was around for the first generation of search engines*?*built one of ?em myself*?*and it went like this:

The first couple of generations had ugly, amateurish-looking front pages. Then a few of us did IPOs and had real money and wanted to build a business model. We understood that the answer had to be based on advertising, so the more visits we got, the more ads we?d be able to sell. A lot of people concluded, wrongly as it turned out, that you needed to be ?sticky?, keep users from leaving your site.

So the search engines morphed themselves into ?portals?, offering news and weather and stock prices and sports results and any other random thing that someone thought might be interesting. The pages became sprawling and complex and overdesigned, with the increasingly-small search space surrounded by a herd of subsystems pleading in a hundred pathetic voices: ?Please, please, don?t go away.?

Google proved that approach wrong, by offering lean, mean, fast search and sending you on your way, no muss no fuss. As Dave Winer memorably put it: ?If you want people to come back, send them away.? This behavior aligned with the link-rich grain of the Web and, well, we all know the history.

Yahoo, Sigh

Yahoo still hasn?t got it. Take moment and drop by their front page. The front center features a short list of news stories, each carefully pitched to raise suspense, ask a provocative question, and get you to click on the story, to find out the answer. In other words: ?Please, please, don?t go away.?

Google

As of today (in January 2010), when I type www.google.com into the address bar, I get this achingly-blank screen: the logo, the search window, the two buttons, an aid-for-Haiti plug (good on ya, Google), and that?s it. As soon as I move my mouse I get a little bit of personalization and Google-product links. It?s not exactly ugly, but there are precious few concessions to design sensibility.

On the other hand, click on the ?iGoogle? link and you?re into portal territory, and for me it?s pretty lame; the weather in Happy, TX?!? Plus a bit of dumbed-down gmail and a Quote-of-the-Day. And the cookie is now set: www.google.com now takes you to iGoogle unless you explicitly go back to ?Classic Home?. I wonder if that?s smart?

Bing

I like bing.com. It?s not trying to portal me, but it uses a little bit of (gasp) color to make things easy on the eye and puts a nice picture in the background, with cool little mouse-overs that invite you to waste a couple of minutes poking around. There?s some extra stuff around the edges, but it?s friendly and whimsical and just hops to one customized Bing search or another. There?s no desperation in the tone.

The search results aren?t quite as slick as Google?s to my eye, but they?re still quite OK and competitive. In the long run, I just can?t see Google sticking with the brute white emptiness, now that everyone has forgotten how and why it got that way, not to mention Yahoo being pathetically irrelevant.

Why It Doesn?t Matter

So, who goes to a search engine any more? Searches these days are done from little windows in your browser and emailer and feed reader and chat client, and Google outbids everyone for the right to get the queries, and monetizes the queries so efficiently that they have the bucks to outbid everyone; a nicely-closed loop.

Thus, it?s not as if the relative merit and lameness of the home pages of Yahoo, Google, and Bing actually mean much. But it?s still fun to think about the differences.




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