Simple Search

Country/area: United States

Organisation: The Markup

Organisation size: Small

Publication date: 10 Nov 2020

Credit: Maddy Varner, Sam Morris, Evelyn Larrubia

Project description:

Simple Search is a browser extension that highlights “traditional” or “ten blue links” search results. It opens a box that layers these results over the info boxes and other cruft that now eats most of the top of the Google results (and some other search engines’) pages. It works on Firefox and Chrome browsers, and for searches on Google and Bing.

We built Simple Search after publishing an investigation in which we showed Google gave its own products 41 percent of the first results page and 63 percent of the first screen on an iPhone X. 

Impact reached:

The Verge described the extension as, “a view of an older, simpler Google, one with surprising antitrust implications.” Simple Search has been downloaded nearly 2,500 times for Firefox and more than 7,000 times for Chrome, Google’s browser extension. 

As part of The Markup’s commitment to transparency, the extension’s code base is available on GitHub. There, readers have been able to identify issues, and one submitted a bug fix that was incorporated into an update to the extension. For a technology-focused publication that prides itself on its data-driven approach, this was an exciting form of reader engagement.

Techniques/technologies used:

We used vanilla Javascript to write a browser extension that was compatible with Firefox and Chrome. We wrote two parsers to find “organic” Bing and Google search results and pull them into an overlaying modal window. Using vanilla Javascript allows the extension to work very quickly.

What was the hardest part of this project?

One of the most difficult aspects of the project was figuring out how to best juxtapose the original search engine results with the “simplified” version, eliminating all the cruft. Because it was a piece of explanatory journalism, we wanted readers to understand how different the two were, while also keeping it functional and easy to use. We also wanted to make sure that readers could easily pause or stop using the simplified view.

Maintenance has been an ongoing effort. Code that is reliant on a third party’s choices, as Simple Search is with our search engine parsers, is inherently fragile. We’ve had to work with readers to find and squash bugs.

What can others learn from this project?

Not all journalism has to be a story. Tools like Simple Search create another entry point to your journalism for audiences who may not have the time or inclination to read your 4,000-word story, no matter how compelling or finely crafted.

Explanatory tools give readers space and time to think about and explore the issues raised in a way that an article or a chart can’t. In this case, the tool also happens to be super useful.

Project links: