Marissa Mayer of Google: Speed Good, AJAX Not So Good
09 Nov 2006

Marissa Mayer of Google: Speed Good, AJAX Not So Good

09 Nov 2006

John Battelle reported Thursday on Marissa Mayer’s talk at the Web 2.0 conference held in San Francisco this week. Mayer shared some very fascinating findings regarding the usability and user experience design of Google’s search results pages. In short, the study found that users preferred speedy page loads to a greater number of results per page and to “highly interactive ajax features”. Although users reported that they preferred more results per page, their expressed desires diverged from their actual interactions. Google’s analysts found that search results pages with 30 results per page rather than the standard 10 per page resulted in lower search traffic and decreased ad revenue by 20 percent.

This is significant in three ways. First, Mayer’s statement contradicts what has almost become an accepted paradigm in web design: that link-rich pages usually provide a better user experience than pages with fewer links. (Related research includes: “Paging vs. Scrolling: Looking for the Best Way to
Present Search Results
” and “Depth vs. Breadth in the Arrangement of Web Links” and “Effect of Link Arrangement on Search Efficiency‚”)

Second, this is significant because it highlights a common shortfall in user experience and usability research: erroneously implemented user testing and falsely derived conclusions.
Rather than surveying users’ intentions and objective feelings it is critical to test their actual interaction patterns and discern how they affect revenue. Also, it may be true that users are more easily able to accomplish their tasks on pages with greater link density, but the ultimate questions should be how does this affect their lifetime value. As we see in Google’s case, download speed was the overriding factor that created a bigger effect on revenue that any gains from the improved usability of longer results list, if there were any.

Finally, user experience practitioners and “gurus” such as Jesse James Garret as well as most internet entrepreneurs seem to be enamored with highly-dynamic AJAX functionality on web sites. Of course real-time, dynamic functionality is great in some cases, but perhaps everyone should take a step back and ask the burning question: “Will all the fancy AJAX functionality add to the overall value of the web site?” Having once worked at Google, I know that they have many extremely bright people painstakingly analyzing and trying to answer such questions. And when Marissa Mayer, Google’s head of user experience, states that AJAX does not necessarily increase the lifetime value of their users, I take note.

With all due respect to all the enthusiastic proponents of AJAX, let’s not accept as fact that loading web sites with highly dynamic functionality will add to the value of users’ experience or the revenue of the web site owners. As user experience designers it is our job to generate added value for our clients, and we owe it to them to make decisions in our designs that will accomplish that end even if that means foregoing the hot trend de jour.

UPDATE: CNET News also covered Mayer’s talk in greater detail than Searchblog. The CNET article sheds more light on her take on the advantages and drawbacks of using AJAX on web sites and in online applications. Mayer pointed out that while users deeply value speed, highly dynamic web sites may be too slow–a major liability. This is particularly true in reference to mobile devices. From the article:

Work needs to be done in the mobile space…. Mobile devices suffer from slow data transfer, and it takes too long to input data and interact with Web applications on the devices, she said.

“Even applications like Google Maps for Mobile, while good, are fundamentally too slow,” Mayer said.

She also stated that AJAX can sometimes improve load and interaction speed, as in the case of Gmail, but it can also be a source of discontentment when it is slow. There is a real potential for the latter since some AJAX functionality requires a lot of JavaScript code and server calls. Then there are the problems of accessibility, ease-of-use, etc.

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