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If you close your eyes and imagine what a search engine results page looks like you probably see something that looks a lot like Google’s search results. You see a list of titles and text snippets that potentially describe the thing that you’re looking for. That’s what Google and Amazon and practically every other site has trained us to see. What few people see is a grid of tiles. This is probably a good thing as there are few use cases that tiled search results are effective.
Where do tiled search results work?
We don’t see search engine results presented as tiles often but we do see them from time to time. When you see them on a commerce site, tiled results can be quite effective. These results usually include a picture of the thing, a title, pricing, a call to action (usually a cart action), and perhaps a snapshot review or description. The picture is the key to knowing if you’ve found the right thing in a commerce setting and a tile is an effective way to deliver this content. But we also see this on sites that are definitely not B2C related.
So what’s the downside?
A large investment bank has made search it’s primary navigation method. When you load their homepage, smack dab in the middle of the page is a search box. They have a hamburger if you want to try navigation but the user experience clearly has doubled down on the effectiveness of search. It’s a bold move. It says “Our search is that good. Go ahead, we dare you to try and not find what you’re looking for.” So how do they do?
First let’s review the two things that all search results pages have to do really well:
- Present high quality search results that answer my question.
- Give me some indication of which of the results I should pick as the right answer.
Traditionally, those goals have been achieved in list form. Each entry in the list contains an informative title and a snippet that gives me more information about the content found on each result’s landing page. So why are search results always presented this way? Well there are a couple of reasons.
- It’s what we’ve been trained to expect after two decades of seeing search results. We don’t have to figure out how to use the search results, it’s our cognitive model.
- It is an excellent user experience for communicating this information. The title & snippet model contains most of the information you need to evaluate the response.
- See 1 above. It’s what we do.
Are tiled results good or bad?
I don’t know. In theory, tiles should be fine if, and that’s a big IF, your search results are awesome and the top three results are the right answer to every question associated with the keyword. The tile also has to tell me which of the three results I see above the fold are the right one. I haven’t seen the data to know whether the tiles are better or not and I suspect many of the tile adopters don’t really know that as well.
The investment bank example above, in my opinion, scores poorly on all accounts. First, I didn’t find many of the results above the fold to have a title that was descriptive enough for me to understand it. Second, there is rarely any additional information presented to help me gain additional insight and what little additional insight there is is behind another click. I might as well click on the result instead of wasting time on the “additional info” click . Third, I know this industry and the titles seem to be more marketing speak than information about the content. It feels like the exact opposite of what a search result should do.
My gut tells me, outside of commerce use cases, tiles search results are less effective than lists because I haven’t seen anyone crack the code on providing enough information on a tile to allow me to know which one I should click on.
So why change?
The list of search engine results is a highly effective method that has few challengers. So why do companies experiment with a change? There are a few good reasons. Most notably, some of our tribe are creative animals and they’re constantly seeking something more innovative, something better. Of course, a new design can’t just be an artistic design exercise, it has to be a usability exercise. Does this change make the experience better and deliver better results for the business?
There is no doubt that the emergence of mobile has changed the way we consume content and voice search will change it even more dramatically. When you think about voice search you can’t scroll through a list of things so perhaps getting our house in order where we can deliver results in terse, well constructed bit makes sense for both tiles and, eventually, voice results. But I think that’s a bit of a stretch. I think most companies do it because they think it looks cool.
I still want tiles.
Fine. But make sure it’s not just something you want, make sure it’s effective for your customers and prospects. If you’re going to give tiled results a try, I’d recommend the following:
- Make sure you work the design hard. Think about how tiled results fit into the rest of the site’s design and deliver the right information to make the search effective.
- Test the heck out of the tiled design. A/B test tiled against list. A/B test descriptive tiles against lean tiles.
- Measure success and whether search success for each of these design changes increases or decreases goal achievement.
The goal of search is to connect, as quickly as possible, your customers and prospects with the answers to their questions. Don’t lose site of that and you’ll be fine.