Google and Yahoo Design Throwdown

Is Google about engineering and Yahoo about design?

Does anybody feel a tension between the Google and Yahoo design teams? No? Well, you should, at least according to this New York Times piece by Saul Hansell: In the Race With Google, It’s Consistency vs. “Wow”.

Hansell describes the situation like this: Yahoo is consistent, turning out useful and solid designs like Yahoo Maps and Mail while Google goes for the WOW factor, turning out semi-finished designs in an attempt to impress people enough to lure them to their platform only to buff on a shine later on.

On the whole, this characterization seems reasonable. Yahoo does seem to put more work up front into their designs, while Google seems to experiment more. I, personally, find the experiments fascinating. Hansell characterizes the situation as a defining point in the “battle” to come:

“Do Internet users prefer services that are consistent and predictable, like those offered by Yahoo, or are they more interested in Google’s wow factor? These two approaches define a pivotal front in the battle for online loyalty between the major players in the Internet search business.”

While I think Hansell overplays the war-like nature of the two approaches, it does seem like the designers at Google and Yahoo come at their jobs from two very different perspectives. Yahoo is full of “designers”, while Google is full of “engineers”. As time goes on, I think these two camps will get closer and closer together until you can’t tell them apart (if they’re not already).

Unfortunately, we don’t hear from the designers in this piece, we hear from executives, who, in the case of Google, seem to have little control over what their designers build (and maybe that’s a good thing). Hansell notes a recent comment by a Google chief:

“Sergey Brin, the company’s co-founder and its president of technology, said in an interview last week that he had been encouraging engineers to develop their ideas as add-ons for existing Google products, rather than as stand-alone services.”

As many of Google’s products come out of the engineer’s personal projects, this might be a change in course for Google. It’s possible to create new, socially adopted software, but it will be increasingly difficult as the canaries in the goldmine YouTube and MySpace beckon new competitors. It makes sense for Google to start from within, and create new products that leverage the existing user base instead of trying to create entire new ones. Yahoo is good at doing that.

However, the power of Search changes things. As I wrote on BrainSparks recently, Yahoo is trying to get people to use Search from the browser, which will effectively get them away from the self-advertisement of their homepage. So, if people don’t go to the Yahoo homepage anymore for Search…which must the the biggest reason why they go there…how will they find out about all the other integrated Yahoo services?

And I wonder, did Alan Eustace, the senior vice president for engineering and research at Google, really say “We are trying to come up with something that is new and different, that makes people say “Wow.”? That doesn’t sound right. Instead of “Wow”, which could mean any number of things, why not “I can’t live without that!”?

Perhaps its Google’s way of saying they want to innovate, but what company doesn’t?

Published: July 25th, 2006