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January 25, 2008

Blended Search Is The Toy In Your Happy Meal

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I missed this earlier in the week, but Barry Schwartz asked an interesting question over at Search Engine Roundtable that I think is worth responding to. The question was: Should Google give people a way to turn off blended search results if they just want the "classic" version?

Personally, I vote no. I mean, throw it out there if it’s easy to do and it will save loud people from complaining, but I don’t see any reason that blended search results would need to be turned off. Sometimes people just have to learn to adapt and evolve. Is that map showing you nearby locations for the business name you just typed in or the relevant YouTube video for the band you just queried really hindering your searching experience? If so, I feel bad for you. Life is so hard when you get exactly what you want.

In his post, Barry uses the example of how Google allows people to turn off personalized search. I get the comparison but that’s comparing apples to oranges, if you ask me. Personalized search and blended search is not the same animal.

When a user searches with personalized search turned on the results they’re getting aren’t true results. They’re skewed based on factors Google has determined are important to you. If you have a history of clicking on one site over another for a particular query, Google will recognize that and start placing that site higher in your results. But what if I want to see the whole newspaper, not just the parts my mother has caught me checking out in the past? As I’ve argued before, I think users absolutely have a right to ask Google not to reorder and restructure their results based on their assumptions.

But blended search doesn’t change the results you’re seeing, or at least not in the same way personalized search does. With blended search, you’re still seeing results in their natural order; you’re just also getting some extra flavor thrown in. If you’re doing a shopping search, you may see products listed. If you look for your favorite recording artist, you may get some YouTube videos. It’s added stuff, stuff that you never had before, but it’s still there because of its true relevancy to your query. The danger that you’re missing out on something because it’s positioned lower is much less, especially now that Google has taken their blended search offering one step further and started implementing ten local map listings + ten regular listings on the page. Hopefully they’ll start using that approach on a grander scale and then users won’t be missing out on anything. You’re getting the extra value meal of search, toy included.

I’m sort of at a loss for why someone would even want to turn it off. Clearly someone did because it came up in the High Rankings Forums. But why? Are they upset that the news article ranking at position 4 has moved one listing off the page? Dude, if you’re so bothered, just click to page two. That’s far less work than having to type in some fancy parameter or change your settings so that Google can help you pretend it’s still the year 2000.

I don’t see much value in offering users a way to turn of blended search. It’s really in everyone’s best interest just to adapt to the new style of search results. In the end, it’s going to give everyone a better search experience. Users get new, often more relevant, forms results appearing; the search engines get to highlight verticals and encourage searchers to use the whole SERP; site owners are able to use media to tie together their site; and search marketers get to learn how to optimize many forms of content. Why fight to go backwards?

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