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Google Instant Preview: What it means for site design

Google Instant Preview is a relatively new feature on the Search Engine Results Pages (SERPs). When a user hovers over a search result, Instant Preview displays a large image preview of the webpage that a search result will link to. It sounds simple, but it adds a whole new dimension of information for searchers deciding on what search result to click through to, and could have an immense impact on the way sites are designed from this point onward.

The first big issue
The demise of Flash gathers pace. Google Instant Preview does not currently support Flash, and replaces any Flash technology with that nice big puzzle piece image (familiar to all iPhone and iPad users). This kind of snub from the world’s most popular search engine provides yet another reason for designers to limit the amount of Flash they use when building a web page.

How it changes things
It’s really quite simple – the preview that you see is smaller than the actual web page you will visit and so, of course, are all the elements on that page. This means that if you want a searcher to know exactly what your site is about when they see the preview on Google, you are going to have to make that clear in shrunken versions of your web pages. Extrapolating this further, this means bigger elements, and a simpler layout.

Instant Preview intensifies the importance of a lot of key User Experience (UX) design and usability principles. The single-mindedness of a site or page becomes paramount – ensuring that there is one strong focus on each page in terms of the action the user is supposed to take. Remember that when someone searches for something they are generally looking to achieve a specific goal, and a preview of a website that shows a clear pathway to achieving that goal will likely get more clicks.

The density of text on a site becomes more immediately significant as well. It is a principle of good UX design to ensure that copy on websites is easily scannable, and to the point. Viewing a small preview where one cannot read the words, but can easily assess the amount and density of text, will probably affect click through rate as well.

A user’s assessment of the credibility of a site is influenced a lot by the look and feel. Sites that look professional, modern and well finished are generally imbued with more credibility, and this is of obvious importance for e-commerce sites. Beautiful, clear sites, with strong branding, good use of whitespace and pleasing colour schemes might now start receiving more traffic purely because of their design.

It’s not just the homepage
Do not forget that any of the indexed pages on a website can show up in Google’s SERPs. This means it is not just the homepage that needs to be considered – even the deeper, content filled pages of a site can be previewed as well. Of course the issue will need to be dealt with differently by different kinds of sites. The New York Times will always need to have relatively text heavy pages on the majority of its pages, but perhaps Google instant preview will start to skew the image to text ratio on web pages, and increase the importance of clear and obvious site branding, logos and navigation.

Layout and use of whitespace is key here as well – a web page that looks well structured and not too busy will be far more attractive than a blurred mess of incomprehensible content. The size and strength of page titles, especially on content provision sites will be more important – if a searcher can immediately see a relevant headline, or page title that appeals to them then they will likely click through.

It’s like designing for tablets and mobile
A lot of the design imperatives emerging from Google Instant Preview are the same as those emerging from the increase in touch-screen devices. Even the preview itself is similar in size to a smart phone screen, so it makes sense to move at least slightly in this direction. Touch screen interfaces, especially on smaller mobile devices call for larger, more obvious buttons, clear calls to action on each page and simple, easy to digest layouts.

Over the coming months and years, three things are certain – Smart phone usage will increase dramatically, tablet computer use will increase dramatically, and Google Instant Preview (and perhaps equivalent features on other major search engines) will become more prevalent. With these three trends in mind, we need to start designing and commissioning sites which abide by relevant UX and usability principles if we want to maintain or increase organic search traffic.

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