For my sins, I'm a chocoholic, so I'm often cruisin' the candy aisles. And when I'm there I almost always see a new, derivative candy bar that I know is doomed to failure in a few months. Did the world really need or want a Smarties Bar, or a Terry's Raspberry Orange (though I kind of admire the perverse logic that wants to turn something round into a bar, and an orange into a raspberry)? Their future relegation to the bargain bin is as clear an indication as any that the answer is no.
I can see the logic at work here. You have to keep creating new products to be a leader in the marketplace, and to capture a larger proportion of market share – at least that's the pitch doubtlessly made at product development meetings that result in some bizarre, unwanted and unloved chocolate bar.
I'm beginning to get the sense that the search engines are experiencing a similar devolution in product innovation. That is, they're producing new products or features for the sake of producing new products or features, rather than introducing innovations that really improve usability or provide more relevance to searchers. Here are two recent examples.
New Google Blog Search Tools
On 2 July 2009 Google announced a number of feature enhancements to Google Blog Search. Most notable among these were the Atom and RSS links in the left-hand sidebar so you can subscribe topic or query feeds. Um, wasn't syndicated Blog Search content always available? Doesn't this simply provide an alternate way of accessing the feed (rather than the address bar RSS button)?
At least that's nominally useful, if you're in the habit of subscribing to queries or setting up alerts. My wider yawn goes to the Hot Queries and Latest Posts section on the Blog Search home page. Let's see, how often do I go to the Blog Search home page? Why … never! I use Blog Search for searching blogs, and I suspect my behaviour in this regard is not unusual. So how helpful is it to me to see what the world is querying (e.g. "obama looking at girl," "so you think you can dance results july 9 2009")? And recent posts from important blogs (e.g. "'Brave' John Williams conquers his fear of ….blueberries")? Guess.
There's a word for a web page that aggregates content, with the expectation that people will use this as a web starting point for their important searching and browsing activities. It's called a "portal." Remember those? How much real esteem Google has for the portal model is easily revealed by looking at the page that most users go to start a Google search, or frequently have set as their browser home page: the Google web search home page, with its unobtrusive logo, box and submit buttons.
Speculation behind the rationale for these new features is that Google is tip-toeing into real-time search results to compete with Twitter. But the Twitter home page with its Trending Topics and search box is not an opt-in portal, it's the user interface to Twitter. I don't need to seek out trending topics; they're there when I'm on Twitter – period.
I suppose there's a class of users that seeks out top queries (as selected by an opaque algorithm) and top recent blog posts (from blogs selected by an opaque algorithm and/or human). There are those that are looking for fodder for their next top 10 post, for example. Or those that keep their televisions permanently tuned to Fox News so they can be fed "hot" news stories (selected by opaque executives and/or malevolent aliens). So maybe because I don't fall into those classes I just don't get it. But I don't.
A belated honourable mention for outstanding product innovation goes to the Google Wonder Wheel, released with the other on-demand Google Search options in May of 2009. I ran a few queries through the Wonder Wheel just to see what insight it provided (um, none) and promptly forgot about its existence until now. Fabulous!
Yahoo Search Pad
I have two beefs against Search Pad. The first is that I just spent three minutes and six seconds of my life watching the Yahoo! Search Pad Preview video, and that's time I'll never be able to recover and put to more useful pursuits, like bitching about Search Pad. The second is that I had to watch the video in order to understand how Search Pad works. I had played with it when it first appeared, but couldn't figure out its basically functionality. Sure, I may not be the brightest ball on the beach, but can generally learn how to use software and widgets without tutorials.
Usability issues aside, is it useful? Sure I want to remember sites I've stumbled upon, and from time to time I even want to annotate URLs. I accomplish these Herculean tasks with the aid of Google Bookmarks (which I was able to grasp without making a trip to YouTube). But hey, that fold-out overlay is cool … almost as cool as a raspberry orange!