It’s easy for a casual consumer to think that the search industry begins and ends with Google. After all, it’s the automatic choice for many browsers looking to navigate the web. From the outside, Google, it seems, is at the forefront of search in all areas.
Those inside the industry, of course, know that’s not true. Although Google seems to have a stranglehold on general search, it’s not dominating everywhere — and as for its ubiquity, its features are not always top of the line, especially when it comes to image search.
Which is why it was so surprising that Google decided to kill the “view image” button from its image search in 2018, causing users to throw a veritable hissy fit over the removal of the feature. It set Google back and proved what many inside the industry already knew: other people are doing more interesting things with image search than Google.
What Google’s gaffe revealed
The first of the two big takeaways from Google’s removal of the “view image” button is that people are deeply invested in having an easy and expedient user journey when they search for information online. Lengthy search processes can deter users from getting to where they want to go, and putting roadblocks between users and the images they came to view struck quite the nerve for Google Images’ users.
The move was derided because it took away the ability for users to load a single image immediately. Instead, they now have to click through and load a webpage and search for an image on that page — an image that sometimes doesn’t show up on the pages it said it would. This added friction is supposed to get users to view content in-context and lower chances that images are stolen, as per Getty’s accusation.
Some users immediately promised to move their search traffic to competitors, including engines like DuckDuckGo, that claim to show the same results as Google but without the tracking — and with the “view image” button:
Others detailed keyboard shortcuts for each other, and some even made a Chrome browser extension that would bring the button back, which has five stars from over 1,700 reviewers. Even though Google has continued to tweak their image search page and sometimes rendered the extension unusable, reviewers frequently submit reviews with five stars and a plea to fix the tool for the updated search — a clear indication that users are not getting over Google’s switch.
This lesson is an important one for anyone supporting a search feature: users pay attention to the user journey, and they want discovery to be easy. And, once things are easier to find, not keeping up with the best of consumer UX is asking for trouble.
Cracks in the establishment
The second big takeaway from Google’s removal of the “view image” button is that search innovation, especially where images are concerned, isn’t necessarily coming from Google.
This isn’t necessarily because Google doesn’t have the resources or the tech to be at the cutting edge of search — in many cases, they are. But their dominance places a target on their back.
The reason that Google pulled the “view image” button was widely reported to be due to a lawsuit with Getty, which alleged that Google was providing easy access to images in a way that encouraged people to steal them.
But, of course, Google is far from the only web search that had a “view image” button — they were just the biggest. What this means in real-time, post-settlement with Getty, is that the smaller search engines and niche search purveyors are freer to innovate and make UX advancements precisely because of their smaller market share.
Lack of standardization is also revealing insofar as innovation is concerned. For example, Yahoo UX focuses on customizations and filtering, like giving users predominant options for sorting by color, size and type:
Bing, meanwhile, seems totally unconcerned with pushing users through to images on-page, giving a more immersive image-browsing experience from the in-search window. They even go so far as to offer a slideshow option, completely divorcing images from context (which was part of what Getty protested):
It’s clear that in the general image search market, companies are not sure exactly what UX path users want or where the best improvements lie. Google doesn’t have the answer, that much is clear. It may be the case that their competitors are actually more in line with the UX that users want, search results aside.
And, since they have a tiny fraction of the search volume, companies like Yahoo and Bing, or even alternate searches like StartPage or DuckDuckGo that rely on Google’s search results, have more freedom to play with user interactions.
What web searches can’t do for search in general
For those looking at image search applications outside of a general web search, what the major web search players are rolling out is frustrating. There’s no clear consensus on UX and no overwhelming push to improve image search in an aggressive manner. This feels deeply at odds with what is happening for image search outside of web searches.
For private companies and ecommerce, applications of image search and image recognition are rapidly progressing. This is in part because ecommerce image search doesn’t have the same concerns about image ownership that got Google into hot water.
This means that visual search providers and ecommerce sites are empowered to innovate in different and exciting ways — connecting a camera to image search on mobile, for example, or deliberately pulling just similar enough pieces for “you might like” suggestions. What users want out of regular search is often not as directed, specific or deliberate as what a shopper wants from their searches.
Visual search for ecommerce is deeply focused on user journeys and user experience. Yes, image tech for ecommerce is sophisticated and accurate, and that matters to consumers. But the way that a shopper is interacting with search features on an ecommerce site is a more high-stakes scenario because ecommerce sites are pushing towards conversion and sales. For Google, making the search is a success in and of itself.
Web search is only looking at a few use cases of how search is used by people across platforms and the reasons why. When a big company like Google powers a search, they’re repurposing the lessons they learned from web search — not the lessons they’ve taken from extensive research in a niche market.
Whether it’s ecommerce or database searches, companies that specialize can feature build for specific use cases in specific scenarios.Companies like Syte work with their partners to develop targeted solutions for the way users are interacting with search outside of general web queries.
In other words, search is a broad category that encompasses much more than web search — which means web search engines like Google don’t always represent the gold standard in technology or UX. Specialized companies like Syte are more empowered to innovate and play around with new possibilities for use cases like ecommerce.
The future is out of Google’s hands
There’s no denying that Google has been an incredible force for shaping search across the web, and there’s certainly no denying their revolutionary early work on text search.
But the market is broader now. Search on ecommerce websites is a piece of the pie that didn’t exist before, and it’s not Google that is doing the innovating. More specialized, faster-moving search providers that are able to play around with features and UX are more successful precisely because they are what Google is not.