Since Google expanded internationally and got to face language barriers as well as legal discrepancies, they have an established policy of auto-detecting the country from which a user originates and present him with the “right” language. It’s nice, too nice actually. In fact, it’s as nice as a Microsoft Office Assistant: a little can be great fun but too much just makes you want to slam the computer through the window.
To the eyes of marketers, language detection has a great advantage: always presenting visitors who may not be comfortable with languages other than their own with the right content, without requiring any setup on their part. Unfortunately, many site designers equate language with geography. Nothing could be more wrong.
I’m a French dude, born and bred in Paris. French is my native language. Yet, I feel more comfortable using my computer in English: Mac OS X speaks English to me, I read English websites, etc… In fact, I even dream in English more than I do in French. In other words, while I have a deep appreciation for the French language, English is, by far, my primary work language. Hence, assuming I want to be served a page in French is utterly wrong.
Of course, I’m not the only one in such a situation: there are people traveling, there are the inhabitants of multi-lingual countries where geographic detection would need to be too granular, there are polyglots… The list is endless. To these people, being served the wrong page is not only disruptive, it is a cause for aggravation — nothing worse than a feeling your true self is being ignored.
How come then this is not more widely used? Well, there are drawbacks, of course, but, for using that very technique in the course of my daily work, I have to say they are few. And when compared to those of the localization systems I know, they seem rather futile.
Back to Google. Every time I type “Google.com”, I am taken to “Google.fr”. Why, then, maintain the two URLs? This means that, every time, I need to click on “Google.com in English”, which will store my settings until the next time I clear my cookies — something I may easily do thirty times a day.
To make things worse, sorry, better, Google throws in “surprise” interface updates. For some weird reason, I often get the traditional interface on the first page of my search, then click “2″ to suddenly see a sidebar on the left, more lines everywhere and a lot less color. Do I like this new interface? No. Do I like the traditional one? Neither. Either, actually, will do for now but It’d like them to at least be consistent.
Google wants to be smart. That’s good, I love smart websites. But here, more than being clever, Google proves inconsistent and that may be the worse thing one can say about a search engine. Yahoo! is proud to be a visual mess and stays a visual mess all the way through (although I do have to say they seem to be making superb efforts), AltaVista is dead set on their 1997 look and A9 has an untold love story for all things columnar. None of them, in terms of aesthetics, would beat Google in my book. But they all offer a consistent interface. What’s more, I have never encountered a situation where, in terms of raw search accuracy, one would have proved a lot better than the others — although AltaVista is a very smart little beast, I have to say.
Now, before wrapping things up, I would like to underline I have no intention to criticize Google as a whole. I do not think this will lead to their ruin, nor am I implying Google has gotten bad. I just wish the very nice touches their design teams have proven capable of could be ported back to good old search one day soon.
Oh, and by the way, don’t throw that computer through the window, really. You could hurt someone downstairs and, you know, it would kind of break.