Now Fully Cooperating with Google

If you’ve ever used the built-in site search on then, well, my apologies. Believe me, I was fully aware that searching this site via that creaky old CGI script was more or less the equivalent of mailing in a question to the Library of Congress and checking your mailbox every day for a reply after working in the fields. That is, it was slow search. I just didn’t have the means to fix it.

All that’s changed, because searching this site is now powered by the brute, irrepressible and undeniable force of Google. They’re a little company on the West coast that specializes in helping you find stuff on the Interweb. And they’re quite good at it too, so the results should be pretty satisfying. Give it a spin; you’ll notice a bajillion-fold speed increase. Now all you have to do is figure out what you’re going to do with all that extra time.

Search Me

This change for the better was made possible by Google’s pretty good and relatively new Google Co-op program, which allows everyday users like you and me to create custom search engines for our sites. Unlike previous tools from Google that offered similar custom search engine functionality, it’s actually possible to manipulate the look and feel of a Co-op engine’s results display so that it aesthetically matches your own site.

Right: Results oriented. The new search results display, courtesy of Google.
New Search Results

That is, it’s possible to do that to an extent, as you must still use a handful of relatively simple controls on Google’s Web site in order to effect your manipulation. It’s better than what was functionally available before — if you try a search, you’ll see that the results are reasonably in line with the look of — but it’s far from a completely manipulable tool. It’s not altogether easy to affect low-level change on the results’ typography, for instance, which is something I’d really like to do.

The State of Search

Slowness aside, I had a fondness for the old, built-in site search provided by Movable Type. It allowed a much higher level of control over the results display, and its method of breaking out results according to one’s various blogs — so that if your installation of Movable Type powered four blogs, for instance, it would group results from each blog together — made for some pretty useful results, all things considered.

I’m a realist though. And there’s no denying that over the past half-decade, the reality of search has become Google. Which is to say that when a user of a Web site enters a search term into a search field — just about any search field, regardless of where on the Web it is — the expectation for the nature of the search experience is the Google search experience.

Users now expect results to be returned as quickly as Google’s results, expect them to be displayed in a simple, unadorned manner like Google’s, expect them to be as relevant as Google’s. It just doesn’t make sense to be in the search game on your own anymore, to attempt to provide a competitive product to Google’s when people can just go straight to Google themselves. Why fight it?

Incidentally, this is the advice I offer anyone looking to improve their search, whether it’s a Fortune 1000 company, a startup, an individual blogger or even my own employers. Unless you’re really prepared to compete with Google in terms of financing, engineering and experience design, I say just get out of the search game altogether and let Google handle it for you while you focus on what only you can do — and Google cannot.

Now that’s taken care of, it’s time to do something about the painful slowness of my comment submission form.

  1. Your sensible, and practical personality goes beyond ascetics.

    Another example of design being more than just making things line up 🙂

  2. While your advice is true for general text-based content, there are still plenty of areas Google clearly has not figured out (or at least made the effort to figure out) how to search effectively. Off the top of my head I can think of travel, real estate, events, my mp3 library, video, etc. There is still lots of room for innovation in search.

  3. Mark: I think you’re right, there’s plenty of room for additional innovation in search, especially in those areas you mention. Competing with Google there requires you to bring some serious resources of your own, though. I don’t mean to discourage such competition but I do think that for most sites/company/people who just don’t have the means, it doesn’t make sense to use alternative search tools that you need to spend time tweaking and optimizing. Just let Google do it.

  4. I really enjoyed it telling me how many seconds it took to perform the search.

    I can’t really compare, because honestly, I never really did a search for anything on your site before.

  5. I’m using MovableType, too, and one thing its search offers that Google doesn’t is a search that includes the keywords that I’ve been faithfully adding ever since I started my photoblog.

    On the other hand, I still haven’t added MT’s search to my site because I could never figure out how to build the code for the search box, or format a page to show results. MT makes that kind of thing way too complicated…

  6. Following your lead, I installed Google Co-op Search on my business site, and I agree with everything you have to say about it.

    One thing, though. Google uses Javascript to load the results on one’s results page. This means, of course: no Javascript, no search results.

    I will spare you the rant about accessibility (and Google’s disinterest in this area) and will instead cut to the solution. You just need to point the search form to the Google-hosted version of the results page, and use a simple script to rewrite the form path to point to your own results page. The rewriting will only happen for folks who have Javascript enabled. The upshot: those with Javascript will get the site-hosted search results; those without it will see the Google-hosted version.

    For those interested in the particulars, view source at to see how I set up the form, then check out the associated script here.

  7. I’m a big fan of Fast Search for Movable Type. It’s not free, but it has almost all the power of the built-in search function (bar regular expressions and a couple of other things), including tag and multiple blog search as well as customisable templates, but it’s many times faster than MT’s search function, has keyword highlighting (like Google’s), built-in pagination and reduces server load considerably.

    It’s only real Achilles heel is that it requires dynamic publishing, so if you use any Perl-only plug-ins in your designs, it falls over. Other than that, it’s brilliant.

    But I like Google Co-op, obviously 😉

  8. Perhaps you could please explain how to do this on our personal projects? I’ve visited the page you linked, but I’m not exactly sure how to return the results on our own page?

  9. Jeffrey G.: Actually, I learned how to do this from the commenter who directly preceded you, Rob Buckley. He wrote a very informative article for the UK’s .Net magazine that gives step-by-step instructions on how to do this.

    Before I wrote this blog post, I went looking for the .Net article online but couldn’t find it. Rob tells me they plan on publishing it soon, though.

    That said, if you read the instructions at Google’s Co-op page, it’s pretty apparent how to get their results inside of your frame. Good luck.

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