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Google Goal: Grow Search Without Killing It

Tweaks to boost core growth risk messing with success.

"Search is hard. Very hard,"

Google

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Vice President Udi Manber explained at a Wednesday event to unveil the company's new and improved methods.

Manber is right, but while he was meaning to play up Google's accomplishments in search, his comments should make investors take pause as well. No matter how tough it is, search is still the business that provides virtually all of Google's revenue.

The market, meanwhile, has come to expect and even

shrug off Google's impressive performance in search. And as investors wait to see if the company can break into new markets before bidding up the stock, falling short of the high expectations in its only real line of business could prove catastrophic.

This leaves Google constantly scrambling for ways to grow its already huge search business -- revenue amounted to $10 billion last year -- at a continued fast clip. And while paid clicks at the company grew 52% year over year during the first quarter, that's down from 61% growth in the earlier fourth quarter.

The "universal search" function

rolled out by Google on Wednesday seems to be the latest scheme. Users searching for a term will now be presented with results across a variety of categories ranging from images, video, books, news and local. Before, results from Google's flagship page were limited to other Web sites only, with different categories being put under different tabs.

Still, despite the fanfare surrounding the launch and the initially positive reaction on Wall Street -- shares of Google closed the day up more than 3% on Wednesday -- investors should be skeptical of Google's latest attempt to juice search (Google shares were up 0.3% to $473.95 in recent Wednesday trading).

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For starters, it's hard to say that Google's new system of showing results across categories will actually be an unquestionable improvement. Flooding different categories onto one search result page may give users more variety, but it comes at the cost of more clutter. And the ability of Google's search engine to wade through an ever-expanding Internet to deliver a few key results has traditionally been a big draw.

Indeed, crowding the results page is a surprising decision given that Google's own research shared earlier in the conference showed that the vast majority of a user's attention is given to only the first three shown results. For that reason, keeping the categories separate offers many benefits.

Under the old system, users looking for the definitive Web page about a topic could use the main search page and be presented with a short list of the top choices. Those interested in the latest news simply hit the news tab. Images and videos could have been called up just as quickly -- provided there was interest.

Also, the new search experience for international users -- for whom high-speed connects are less common but who increasingly make up the mix of Google users -- could actually take a hit. Loading images and video frames onto the main page instead of text links could cause a considerable slowdown.

Billions of users around the world have also grown used to Google's unique interface. In fact, much of the company's focus has been ensuring consistency. During the presentation, Google senior user experience researcher Kerry Rodden joked that his friends have a tough time understanding his job of making tweaks to Google's search page given how remarkably steady it has remained over the years.

Like the intuitive continuity issue facing

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in its desktop products, Google needs to make sure that any changes are well thought through.

Given the numerous trade-offs involved in the new layout, Google's move is hardly the no-brainer that management may be presenting it as. (Google Vice President Marissa Mayer said the search giant would have even made this move back in 2001 if the resources had been available).

But with Google's constant need to come up with new ways to keep search growing rapidly, existing between a rock and a place as hard as search might be a recurring theme.