When Google first debuted, there were lots of things that set it apart from other search engines: it was a pioneer in evaluating the links pointing to a website rather than just the keywords that site contained, and offered users better search results. But that’s not something users can easily see, and it’s not what made Google popular. Instead, what set the upstart apart from its competitors was the design of the search page itself.
Search engines in the early 2000s were a visual mess. The main search portals of early giants like Yahoo and AOL were crammed with features and information, plus busy elements like ads, icons and weather forecasts. These pages played at an early form of user engagement, allowing users to customize which features showed up and what set of colors dominated the screen. One thing they didn’t offer, however, was white space.
Google changed that. Its search page was simple: all white background, with a single logo, a single search box, and “I’m feeling lucky” for a dash of quirkiness. The clean look didn’t just give users’ eyes a break, it also made Google easy to use. Within years, “to google” was the generic term for running a search.
But it wasn’t just Google’s brand that spread. The search engine’s clean white aesthetic caught on, too. By 2008, web designers advocated more white space and less clutter to clients in virtually every industry. Wallpaper backgrounds, branded color palettes, and the use of menus and sidebars were all reduced to absolute minimums. From social giants like Medium to vaunted publications like The New Yorker and art mags like Aeon, this sparse white design style remains common across the web today.
Does that mean Google set a decade of web design trends? Not necessarily. There are a lot of reasons why the simple white-and-black aesthetic has reigned supreme, and copying Google (with its decidedly un-spartan logo) is not the only one. The trend corresponds to a shift toward minimalism in mainstream culture, accentuating a century-long move toward sleeker, simpler styles. White space also puts the focus squarely on content, in an age when search engines declared that content was all that mattered and users learned to put up barriers against online advertising. A clean, blank Internet was exactly what the crowded digital economy needed, and Google predicted that trend as much as it set it.
But now, Google’s biggest competitor has chosen a very different aesthetic—and it’s also finding widespread acceptance (and imitation).
When Microsoft first debuted its Bing search engine, it looked as dramatically different from Google as Google once had from Infoseek. Where Google favored white space, Bing favored color—to the tune of a single giant background image, generally a stunning National Geographic-worthy photo. The photos tapped into a long Microsoft history of visual backgrounds, which users may remember from generations of Windows desktops. But where old desktop backgrounds often seemed corporate and bland (think “images you might see in a dentist office”), Bing aimed for the sort of image you’d want to look at twice and maybe even share with friends.
This, like Google’s old white space, found resonance with users. The Internet has become as much a visual medium as a textual one. We skip over article links that lack stunning thumbnails, and are more likely to share memes from friends’ social media streams than the actual conversational posts that make those streams social. We just love photos.
And, like the “doodle” logos that helped make Google famous, Bing keeps us waiting for more: each day brings a new picture, a delightful little surprise that may get you to pause and read the caption before typing in your search.
Now Bing has doubled down. Last month, the search giant announced its background images will now be high-def. The images are 1920 × 1080, include mouse-over captions (so as not to distract with extra text) and can be easily downloaded as a wallpaper.
That doesn’t mean Bing has forsaken a minimalist aesthetic. While the entire home page is a full-bleed HD image, it’s only one image—there isn’t a lot else on the screen. A logo, a search box, and a few tiny icons at the bottom mean that Bing looks just like Google, if Google were wearing a hip graphic tee.
This photo-intense aesthetic has been taken up by other websites. Users who visit AirBnB won’t just find an easy portal to look for rooms to rent. They’ll find a virtual carbon copy of the Bing home page, with a single search box and a high-def video clip showing an escape-from-reality scene. The image changes continuously.
Even Medium, the long-form essay site that took blank-white-plus-text to the masses, has moved toward stunning photo options. Aside from full-bleed cover shots, Medium has added one-click support for full width images, photo grids, and illustrations that become background wallpaper as you scroll past them.
Not every major website is moving away from white space. Yahoo recently unveiled a new design for its search results that is “cleaner” and actually more like the Google aesthetic. (As Search Engine Land points out, this is unsurprising since current Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer was once in charge of Google’s bare-bones home page.) But those are workhorse pages meant to deliver a lot of textual information to a user—exactly where white space shines. For home pages, product pages and blogs, a stunning photo background or cover photo is only going to become more and more common.
Just like with Google and white space, it’s not quite fair to say that Bing founded this new photo-intense trend. As connection speeds have improved, designing sites around giant photos is no longer a liability. And with more people posting images, gifs and videos of their own, the Internet is decidedly more visual than ever before: blank white looks almost old-fashioned.
But Bing has wonderfully anticipated the next web design trend, and the search engine’s new HD daily images will encourage more sites to do the same.
For businesses on the web, the challenge of this new trend is going to be getting visual in a way that doesn’t overwhelm visitors—or eclipse your most important content. Oftentimes, the only thing more important than good web design is a good web re-design, especially as the way people use the Internet evolves and changes.
Does your website have images that grab visitors, and content that is as visual as it is compelling? Is your site mobile-friendly? And is there any aspect of your site, from loading time to readability, that might hurt your SEO?
EverSpark’s design team is happy to help you evaluate your current website and redesign it to be more visual, more engaging and easier to use. We also offer a free consultation. Contact us today and get ahead of the trend.