Google, Stop Distracting Me

In the search engine wars, Google quickly rose to the top of my list for one simple reason: Simplicity. Even as other search engines were turning towards portal-modeled content, Google clung to the front page, a simple search box with a search button, and returned simple, unadorned results. No features, no gimmicks. I know many people turned to Google for its search algorithm, which appears of dubious merit these days, but I turned to it because it was crisp, clear, and easy for me to navigate.

I have a really hard time with visual distractions. Anything that flashes or moves on a screen renders me nonfunctional until I close the page, which is a serious problem on an Internet where everyone and their sister seems to feel the need to include animations; whether it’s a bouncing mood icon or a flashing banner ad, it ruins my focus and concentration. Imagine looking at a page and only being able to see what is moving, even if it is very small or subtle. That’s basically what moving things do to me, which is why I am gnashing my teeth over the current animated .gif fad. The best way I can describe moving things is that they freeze my brain.

Cluttered layouts are also big pitfalls for me. I have a hard time seeing things in a confusing or unfamiliar layout, which means that I can scan a page a dozen times and not see the thing I want; I once spent 15 minutes trying to figure out how to start a new email in GMail because they changed the design of the ‘compose mail’ button and my brain just refused to see the new button. I rake pages with my eyes in increasing desperation, especially when people are watching or waiting for something, and I just cannot see what I am supposed to.

Which is why I like really simple things. I like one or two column blog formats. I like search engines that just give me a list of links with short excerpts. I like hidden menus that I can expand when I need to access, and ignore when I do not. I do not like options. I loathe those noxious social networking bars springing up like weeds on websites everywhere; I find them tremendously visually distracting, to the point that, again, they are the only thing I see on the page, which is annoying when I’m, you know, trying to read a news article.

All of this visual distraction makes it increasingly hard for me to navigate the Internet. One of the things I love about the newest incarnation of WordPress is the ability to collapse, customise, and hide. Most people would have a tough time navigating my dashboard because there’s nothing here. I have it stripped down to a bare minimum and I collapse most things so they don’t distract me. Something like a list of categories at the side of the window can send my brain on a tailspin; I start thinking about those things, focusing on them exclusively, wondering if I should reorganise them, and meanwhile the composition box remains blank. I need a very controlled and fundamentally spartan navigating environment.

Which is why Google is really pissing me off these days. I’ve ranted at length about the changes to search; the sidebars, site previews, and other additions that are not just annoying and unwanted for me, but render search fundamentally unusable. It’s not that it is hard for me to use or that I need to adjust, it’s that I cannot use it with those ‘functions’ enabled. I finally resorted to turning scripts off and blocking a bunch of stuff on Google search just so that I could use the damn Internet without my head exploding.

But the same tendency, to add on a bunch of unwanted and not really necessary crap, is exploding across Google properties, and it’s really annoying. Part of my loyalty to Google is the result of being tied to it in so many ways, but part of the reason I have allowed that to happen is because it historically had good aesthetics and a careful design consciousness. That included very basic and simple visuals, clear navigation and control, ease of use for me, as a disabled user. Now, that’s not the case. Google is filled with gewgaws and gadgets and the same problem is spread across the entire Internet; it’s not like I can go somewhere else to escape it because everywhere is like this.

There aren’t even options to choose a less visually distracting presentation mode, or to turn off unwanted ‘features’ that distract me. Meanwhile, Google takes away the features I actually use and want. For example, in search, you used to be able to X out results that were not relevant or useful. It would remember this and it would start to learn to not display those sites. Considering how much searching I do for work, this is a really key feature. I need to be able to clean up search results quickly and to work with an adaptive search engine that will learn from my habits to display what I want. Now that this feature is gone, it’s back to wading through irrelevant results to find what I need.

Google has a bad track record with suddenly releasing ‘features’ that users are not very enthusiastic about and then acting surprised when there are howls of rage from web browsers who are not happy. You would think they would learn from this and stop doing it, and that maybe it would consider things like testing and actually responding to criticism before releasing stuff to the general public. I cannot be the only disabled person in the entire world who has trouble navigating the Internet because of visual distractions and used to rely on Google to meet my need for clear, simple browsing. I want that Google back. I don’t much fancy this one.