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GoogledoodleGoogle.com is the top web search engine the world: with an index of over 40 billion web pages, it commands 67% market share against competitors Bing, Yahoo!, and others. But the Google we see today is very different from the Google that first appeared in 1998, hosted on Stanford’s servers.

Google’s homepage has undergone a series of iterative changes over the last sixteen years. At first glance, these updates may seem to be natural, straightforward decisions aimed at giving visitors the simplest experience possible. But think again; this page has likely undergone hundreds, if not thousands of experiments:

“We figure out what works by running experiments – tiny tests for a small number of users which help us determine whether that feature helps or hurts … At any given time, we run anywhere from 50 to 200 experiments on Google sites all over the world.”
—2008, Search Experiments, Large and Small

Today, the tech titan has grown to include a myriad of products, ranging from a mobile OS and hardware to productivity apps and self-driving cars. Search, however, is still king. What changes have emerged to help Google keep its edge? Being the curious website optimizers we are, we thought we’d take a look and share a few pieces of Google’s history.

1998—Google’s first homepage

Note the three separate CTAs, both search and email signup fields, and a handful of hyperlinked pages in the mix as well. A visitor to this version of Google.com could have taken seven different actions with this page, or left it entirely because of confusion or disinterest.

 

2000—Spring Cleaning

A much clearer homepage takes center stage. The calls to action have been pared down, and many of the extraneous links have been removed. According to a statement in Google’s newsletter: “Now the front page is cleaner and less cluttered, in line with our philosophy that as little as possible should get in the way of letting you search.”

2003—A Tabbed Approach

As Google introduced new product offerings like Image Search, Groups, and News, they chose to organize the new products in tabs above the search bar, keeping “Web” as the default choice.

2006—Personalize It

Google begins to offer a different experience to users who use the search page while logged in to their other products, such as Gmail.

2009—A Blank Slate*

Sometimes, a totally out of the box approach can help to break through a pattern of iterating that only results in minimal improvements. In this approach to a homepage redesign, Google introduced a vanishing navigation bar that appeared when a user moved a mouse over the page. The effect is very dramatic, but is it useful?

*This year also marked the departure of Doug Bowman, Google’s Visual Design Lead, over what we’ll call “creative differences.” 41 shades of blue, anyone?

2010—Feeling Unlucky

With the launch of Google Instant, we pause in memoriam of the “I’m Feeling Lucky” button. Google introduced “Instant” search in the fall of 2010, which would take searchers directly to their results pages as they began to type a query. The effect was (and still is) striking, but “I’m Feeling Lucky” was an unfortunate casualty of the update.

(You can still access an “I’m Feeling Lucky” option in the drop-down of suggested terms in an instant search.)

2011—You’ve Been +Added

In the summer of 2011, Google launched its social network, Google Plus. As part of its massive push to drive signups to the site, the Google.com page bore a not-so-subtle arrow to Plus in the navigation bar on the homepage. Was this advertisement worth it? We’d say the jury is still out on that one.

2014—What Next?

After more than fifteen years of development, we arrive at a Google.com page that looks very similar to the ones that came before it. However, we can see that each element on the page was carefully introduced, subtracted, added, or repositioned before arriving at its current placement.

Inspired by some of the ideas that have been tried on Google.com? Many of the changes could be run on your website as well. What could you do to make your website a better experience for your visitors?

*All images of Google.com taken from the WayBack Machine.

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