The Interface of Intent

"The user interface on Google has changed very little since its inception, and I think it's their core vulnerability."



- Irwin Gotlieb, Global CEO, GroupM

Gotlieb was quoted in an article for India's The Economic Times ( M/articleshow/6079799.cms) discussing the future competition that would challenge Google's dominance. Gotlieb suggested that the challenge was likely to come from an unknown in a garage somewhere; he doubted the it be on the algorithm front but rather the user-experience side.

The timing of this article had a fabulous intersection for what was one of the most memorable sporting days in U.S.-England history. Simultaneously, the USA and England soccer (futbol, if prefer) teams were playing for their lives in the World Cup. England carried through with a 1-0 win over Slovenia only to see their pesky afterthought competitors from the U.S. score a stoppage time goal from Landon Donovan to win the Group over England.

As remarkable as the U.S. outcome was, it was not even close to the most amazing U.S.-England sports outcome of the day - and an interesting example of how the commentary about Google's blind spot could eventually be exposed.

Just as the U.S. and England matches were winding down, a buzz started among some of the sports-specific Twitter accounts I follow about a first-round tennis match at Wimbledon between American John Isner and Nicolas Mahut of France.

The match started Tuesday and was called overnight at two sets apiece. It resumed on Wednesday, and when the buzz picked up, it was, at that time, tied in the fifth set at 30-30. The match was bordering on records for duration and games played at Wimbledon and steaming toward Open Era tennis records. By the time it was over, the fifth and final set qualified as the longest match on its own. The original record for longest match in the open era was just over six-and-a-half hours. This one? It went close to 10 hours!

So, where does Google fit into this? The answer today is nowhere. I use Google and Bing frequently every day. Yet even when I was searching for Wimbledon to shortcut to the live results from the Official Site, I would have had no idea this epic tennis match was taking place. The Google score tracker on the result page failed to possess the AI to discern history in the making. Even a portal like Yahoo didn't register the history.

Then again, country singer Kellie Pickler (who got engaged) was out-trending Landon Donovan who won the game for the U.S. soccer team, so make of that what you will.

My point, as it relates to search evolution, is that we have to examine what we know (expressed intent) and how we see that delivered to the benefit of users. A few weeks back, Google launched background images on the home page. Not a new idea; Bing has used it since launching last year. Yet, the public expectation of what Google should look like led to a swift removal -- the outcry was strong against the change.

In the past, Google and others have tried to incorporate the searches and feedbacks of others, but the general public seemed uninterested. My passion for sports is an expressed behavior. When I get behaviorally targeted ads, they usually involve sports or Vegas. If Google is truly, as John Battelle once contended, the keeper of the database of intention, then they have to gain public blessing to do something with it. Right now, the public is withholding -- and their core business is not equipped to capture on it alone.

If change is to come, then perhaps it has to come from someplace new.

If the contract of agreement between users and Google has long since been written, then re-writing that is a daunting task. Likewise, while Twitter and even Facebook have allowed me to become informed of my friends and topics of interest, they are still woefully ill-equipped to respond with advertising that is tangential to my previously-expressed intentions.

Perhaps it's Apple which has changed the user interface through their devices, specifically the mobile and now tablet devices. Or maybe, as Gotlieb suggested, it will be someone else, in a garage, that writes the contract with users that compiles intent data, like Google, and marries it with a unique experience, like Apple or Facebook. The trick is to do it in such a way that brings more brands into the discovery phase, so when consumers express previous intent, it can benefit them at any time.

As for the tennis match, for a second straight day, it descended and play was suspended, this time at 59-59 in the fifth set. Much like the user interface of the future, still undecided.

1 comment about "The Interface of Intent".
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  1. Ric Dragon from DragonSearch, June 25, 2010 at 12:48 p.m.

    Interesting premise... Excuse me for re-framing - but basically it seems that search, and Google in particular - which is the main mechanism in which users are able to filter the sea of too much information to find the relevant - isn't doing the job with breaking news.

    That is different, I believe, than simply a user interface issue. It's about feeding in different TYPES of results into the SERP. And I think Google has been working towards that. In my blog post about the Social Media Panopticon at I discuss how the various players are working to have a place in all aspects of user's online experience. With Buzz, Google made a play at it. Just because they seemed to have eased off, doesn't mean that they've quit.

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