Imagine if every time you went to the supermarket your shopping cart was loaded with the same box of cereal.
It turns out that this cereal is the most popular, so it is convenient for the store to leave it in the cart. If you don’t like it, it’s simple to put it back on the shelf and get a different box.
Essentially, this is Google’s defense against the US Department of Justice in a major antitrust trial — the first federal antitrust case in the modern internet era — now playing out in court.
The government accuses Google of illegally teaming up with mobile device makers, computer makers and browser developers to stifle competitors in online search.
Under these partnerships, the Justice Department argues, Google has made its search engine the default service on an overwhelming majority of consumer electronics, including smartphones. This then discouraged people from trying other alternative services such as Microsoft’s Bing, DuckDuckGo and others.
But Google argued that it’s easy for people to change their search engine — as simple as putting a box of cereal back on the store shelf.
The trial raises questions about how and why we use Google search. Many of us grew up doing Google searches because it seemed to deliver the best results with the least amount of effort. But would we know if something better came along, since Google was already configured on most of our devices? And even if we knew, would we continue using Google since its search engine was set as the default?
I decided to test the difficulty of switching to a different search engine. In a post on its official blog this month, Google said the change was a simple process and offered three examples:
- On an iPhone, four taps are required;
- On a Mac’s Safari browser, it takes two clicks;
- On Android phones, two taps are required.
So I followed Google’s instructions and also shared the company’s guidance with three design veterans. The verdict: Change is hard — and most people would probably give up before completing the change.
“God help me, I’m dead,” said Ted Selker, a product design veteran who worked at IBM and Xerox PARC, after reading the steps for changing the search engine on an iPhone.
Harry Brignull, a user experience consultant in the United Kingdom, concluded the following about Google search: “Most people will just keep using it.”
I had similar conclusions. Here’s what design experts and I discovered after trying to crush Google search.
Google said iPhone owners can switch to a different search engine in four taps by opening the Settings app, tapping Safari, tapping Search Engine, and then selecting an alternative.
In reality, it is more complicated.
After Settings opens, Safari doesn’t immediately appear on the screen. It’s hidden under 36 other menu items, so the user has to swipe up at least twice to find Safari’s settings. In reality, it takes six taps.
But even four steps would probably be too much for many of us, Selker said. It may have been simple 15 years ago, when most internet browsing was done on desktop computers, but in the age of smartphones, someone looking for this setup could be interrupted while they’re on the move — catching a bus, for example.
“You can’t expect people to remember a lot of steps,” he said.
With just two clicks, Google said Mac users can change the default search engine in the Safari browser to a different service — first by clicking the magnifying glass icon and then selecting a different search engine, such as Yahoo, Bing or DuckDuckGo.
This is much simpler than on an iPhone. But not everyone knows that the magnifying glass icon is a button — it allows people to type a query into the search bar.
More problematic is that switching between search engines can be confusing because the steps are inconsistent between Safari on an iPhone and Safari on a Mac, said Tony Hu, an MIT director who oversees an engineering leadership program.
“Overall, the average person would probably have a hard time with this,” he said.
Selker said a better design would have been to make the search engine change more “evident,” like a prompt asking users to choose a service when opening the browser.
“It has to make you aware that the option exists until you have dismissed it,” he said.
On Android phones, Google said you need to press the search bar for the Remove button to appear. Users can then tap it to remove the Google search bar widget from the home screen.
This example is especially flawed. First, Google’s steps to remove the search bar widget work on some Samsung phones, but they don’t work on all Android devices. On Google’s Pixel phones, for example, when a user long-presses the search bar, no Remove option appears.
Most importantly, removing the search widget deletes a shortcut to the Google search bar on the home screen, but does not change the search engine in a browser.
Switching to a different search engine requires a different set of steps. Similar to the path on iPhones, it’s a four-step process that involves opening the browser and changing its settings.
The overall lesson from the government’s antitrust trial against Google is that when companies make deals to become the default option, they are aware that you are likely to stick with the status quo because switching to an alternative requires awareness and effort, Brignull said. , author of “Deceptive Patterns: Exposing the Tricks Tech Companies Use to Control You” [Padrões enganosos: expondo os truques que as empresas de tecnologia usam para controlar você].
Google said in a statement that it’s easy for people to change their default search engine on Android devices and Apple’s Safari. The company added that on Windows computers, which require a long process to remove Bing as the default search engine in Microsoft’s Edge browser, the vast majority of people choose Google.
With all this in mind, and the instructions now before you, it will be possible to try other search engines. If you find that you prefer Google anyway, at least it will be your decision — not Google’s.