Thumbnail based web design?

Paul Boag

Google have added an instant preview to its search results that shows a thumbnail of your website. Should this change the way you design?

Just before I went away to America Google launched an interesting new feature that I believe raises some questions about how we design of our websites. The feature I am referring to is instant preview found in Google search results.

In case you haven’t seen this feature yet go to Google and perform any search. In the search results next to the title of each result you will see a small magnifying glass. Clicking on this will show a preview of the webpage being listed. You can then roll over any other result to have that preview automatically update.

Google instant preview

Why should I care?

The introduction of this feature is significant because the thumbnail will influence which links users click. If the thumbnail is incomplete, unattractive or does not seem relevant the user is significantly less likely to click. In short where users used to judge a website within a few seconds of arriving, they will now be making judgements before even visiting your website.

How does this change our design?

Beyond the obvious fact that some sites will look more attractive as a thumbnail preview than others, there are also technical considerations. For example a thumbnail cannot display interactive slideshows, video or indeed any other moving element.

The technology that Google uses to capture these thumbnails also seems to have problems with elements that take longer to load on a page or with plug-in technology such as flash. In short if elements of your page take too long to load or use technology such as flash they may appear blank in your thumbnail. Websites built entirely in flash do not display at all.

Example of a blank preview of flash based website

But are people using this feature?

Of course you may argue that few people will actually use this functionality and you may well be correct. However I can see this being particularly useful for people using a slower web connection. It will allow them to assess individual search results without visiting each page. It is therefore particularly important to consider your previews if you are targeting an audience you know will have a relatively poor connection.

My take on instant preview

Personally I believe that instant preview is part of Google’s ongoing campaign against those who would seek to artificially manipulate their search engine placement. By allowing users to quickly preview pages it exposes sites that are either squatters, keyword stuffers or doorway pages.

However I do believe it has greater ramifications than this. For example, it is yet another reason to avoid flash unless absolutely necessary. It may also discourage some website owners from using third-party widgets that load slowly.

I would certainly encourage website owners to check their thumbnail and make sure it is displaying correctly.

But what do you think? Should we be worrying about Google instant preview or is it something that will be rarely used? Let me know in the comments below.