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Google tests snapshots of Web pages

A new feature would offer stamp-size pics of sites alongside ordinary search results. But longer page-loading times could mean a thumbs-down for the thumbnails.

Google has been quietly testing a new feature that offers snapshots of Web pages alongside ordinary search results.

Google spokeswoman Cindy McCaffrey on Wednesday told CNET that the experimental pages have so far been shown to a random test group made up of less than 1 percent of its audience. She added that the company routinely tests new ideas in this way and has not yet decided whether it will adopt the graphical cues as a standard feature.

"It depends on the feedback we get," she said. "We're really most interested in getting someone exactly to the destination that they are looking for. We're open to providing any information to accomplish that, including graphics."

Google has quickly grown from obscurity to become a leading brand in search on the strength of its ability to ferret out useful information from the Internet's growing junk pile of Web sites. Among other things, it has been pushing a page-ranking feature that prioritizes search results based on the popularity of sites.

The company's stripped down interface and reputation for providing relevant results has made it a hit among consumers. The site has grown from 5.7 million visitors in September 2000 to 18 million visitors last month, according to research firm Jupiter Media Metrix. It has also scored with corporate partners, edging out Inktomi to become the backup search engine on Yahoo last year, for example.

The search market remains highly competitive, however, and Google's recipe for success has been copied by a growing number of search engines such as WiseNut and Teoma, which hope to refine their focus on search relevance with more potent technology.

WiseNut already offers a variation on graphical cues for Internet Explorer, called "sneak-a-peek," which went live when the service launched Sept. 5. Sneak-a-peek provides a link that opens a window below a particular search result, displaying the Web page where the information is found. The window offers a scroll bar, allowing a viewer to see the entire page in near-full size.

Giving consumers a peek of a Web page in theory offers a useful clue about the relevance of the information being served up. But piling on many graphics, even small ones, can cause longer page-loading times than one gets with plain text. In addition, Google's test offers only tiny pictures of Web pages, known as thumbnails, which many surfers may find illegible.

"Overall, it's an interesting idea," said Danny Sullivan, editor of Search Engine Watch. "Human beings like visual clues, and even the small screenshots can often times communicate information that can be helpful in making a click-through decision. The key for any search engine is figuring out a way to present the additional graphical information without burdening the user with a slow response time."

According to McCaffrey, Google frequently turns to limited testing in evaluating new features. For example, she said, the company extensively tested a new tab interface before implementing it earlier this month. Other tests that were later fully implemented include its Ad Words advertising service and its preferences page, which lets people choose a default language and block out pornography, among other things.

"We have 50 PhDs on staff," she said, "and they are always thinking up new ideas to try out."