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KAI RYSSDAL: The next big event in the “Google-ization” of the world could come at the end of January. The Federal Communications Commission is going to be auctioning off a key chunk of the wireless airwaves. The search company’s expected to join in the bidding. It could, if all the speculation’s right, turn out to be the 700 megahertz foundation of a new mobile network. Obviously, a lot has changed for Google since it began searching in 1998. But on its crisp white homepage, one little button has managed to stick around all these years.
Marketplace’s Brendan Newnam decided to find out why.
BRENDAN NEWNAM: Google’s main search page is renowned for its elegance and simplicity, but there’s one distraction on the site that fellow Californian Dirty Harry summed up nicely.
DIRTY HARRY: You’ve got to ask yourself a question. Do I feel lucky?
And common wisdom has it that obscure doohickeys like the “I’m Feeling Lucky” button confuse users and waste their time. Jacob Nielsen, a leading Web usability expert, says that stands in sharp contrast to the rest of the pristine page.
JACOB NIELSEN: Google’s search page is great from a usability perspective because there is no doubt about what you do. “I’m Feeling Lucky” is less usable because most people have no clue what it means.
So what does it mean?
I typed in the search words “I’m Feeling Lucky Button” into Google, and then I hit the “I’m Feeling Lucky” button. My computer did not rip a hole in the space-time continuum. It took me to a definition. The “I’m Feeling Lucky” button directs you to the first page Google returns for your query. So where did the idea for a button that anticipates exactly what you want come from?
There are only two people in the world who can answer that question and I was, uh, lucky enough to bump into one of them when I visited Google. Sergey Brin is the co-founder of Google.
SERGEY BRIN: The reason it’s called “I’m Feeling Lucky,” is of course that’s a pretty damn ambitious goal. I mean to get the exact right one thing without even giving you a list of choices, and so you have to feel a little bit lucky if you’re going to try that with one go.
That’s one of the other problems with the button. It doesn’t always take you where you want to go. But since it’s there, surely people must be using it. Marisa Mayer is a Google vice president and responsible for everything on the search page. She says, not really.
MARISA MAYER: I would say it’s less than 1 percent of our searches are done through the “I’m Feeling Lucky” route.
Even Sergey Brin admits that he hardly uses it.
NEWNAM: Do you use it, ever?
BRIN: I sometimes use it, though rarely.
Tom Chavez heads Rapt, a company that helps determine what advertising real estate on a Web page is worth. He did the math on how much the 1 percent of people who don’t use the button are costing the company.
TOM CHAVEZ: Basically you have $110 million of revenue loss per year associated with that button.
That’s because the company makes a lot of its money by selling ads on its search results page. People who are “feeling lucky” never see that page, and therefore Google’s ads, because the “I’m Feeling Lucky” button automatically directs them to a non-Google site.
CHAVEZ: Well, it is potentially a bit of a head-scratcher, right?
So why exactly do they keep it around? Marisa Mayer again.
MAYER: You know Larry and Sergey had the view, and I certainly share it, that it’s possible just to become too dry, too corporate, too much about making money. And you know what I think is really delightful about Google and about the “I’m Feeling Lucky,” is that they remind you that the people here have personality and that they have interests and that there is real people.
But Nielsen, the Web usability expert, says the whimsy serves another business purpose.
NIELSEN: By loosening up their reputation, by sort of still maintaining this feeling of, “Oh we’re just two kind of grad students hanging out and having a beer and having a grand old time,” not you know, “We are 16,000 people working on undermining your privacy.”
As Google continues to draw the attention of competitors, regulators and, yes, privacy advocates, showing that human face is one way to make the company appear less threatening. Google’s pressing the the “I’m Feeling Lucky” button, and hoping it’ll bring them the exact result they want.
In Mountain View, California, I’m Brendan Newnam for Marketplace.