HotBot redesign launched

Ah, I can finally talk about it. It’s so far off everyone’s radar that hardly anyone has noticed yet. Let’s change that.

Another project I had a hand in design directing and pushing to XHTML/CSS (smack in the middle of the Wired News redesign) finally surfaces. Following Wired’s lead, HotBot redesigns and in the process, completely morphs as a new product. [Mostly] table-less CSS-based design that was cranked out in a one-week visit to Boston back in June. The backend took significantly longer, thus the delay. The CSS changed slightly from what I originally authored, creating a few rendering and alignment bugs in various browsers. But you get the basic idea. Aside from very minor visual changes, the design we came up with is still in tact, and represents the harnessed power and attitude HotBot has been known for.

They still have a few validation problems due to improperly used elements and attributes. They’re working on those. If they must keep the <iframe> at the bottom of the source code, they’ll have to switch the Doctype to XHTML Frameset or Transitional. But the <layer> tag in the same spot will have to go. I think they have a way to go to refine some of the features — both in concept and execution.

New Features

The new HotBot team should be commended for taking the leap, pushing search to the next level, and making a last-ditch effort to put this search engine back on the map. They have their own page which summarizes some of the new features. In my own words, here’s what I think is cool:

  • Speed – The main search page has been optimized, and is now wicked fast. They tell me they dropped the download time from 4.5 seconds down to 1.5 seconds. For a search engine, that’s one to harp on.
  • Multiple catalogs – Choose the source of your results, including Google, Inktomi, FAST, and Teoma. Want someone else’s results for the same query? Click a different radio button and they change instantly.
  • Design control – The design and color scheme is customizeable via pre-configured CSS “skins”. It can also be customized through a WYSIWYG style picker, or completely customized personal CSS files, similar to what AlltheWeb recently began offering. Don’t like what they give you? Change it.
  • Filters – Frequently used advanced filters can still be added to the front page. When not used, they can be minimized to display simple text summaries of the current settings.
  • No ads – They even took a bold step and removed the ads from the front page to eliminate clutter and make the page that much faster. An excellent decision that benefits the user experience tenfold. (Let’s see how long this lasts — hopefully a long while.)
  • Even though I can’t say what they are, they have even more features in the pipeline, so keep an eye out.
Some History

The Lycos search team in Boston took over management and engineering behind the HotBot product a little more than two years ago. Those of us remaining at Wired cringed as we watched them suck the technology out of HotBot and hang it out to dry. Renewed interest in the smaller “Indie Brands” at Lycos this past year finally brought welcomed attention (and resources) back to sites like Wired News and HotBot.

Midway through this year, the search designer was desperately struggling through some confused attempts at revamping the HotBot design and brand. She was entirely unfamiliar with the Wired and HotBot aesthetic, and the goals the original HotBot team kept in mind for each prior iteration of the search engine. I flew back to Boston to provide some needed direction and reign in the creative thinking. Two of us locked ourselves in a small conference room. In the span of about four days, the live design you see is pretty much the result we came up with.

At the time, I was halfway through the Wired News redesign, and knee-deep in CSS. For my money, HotBot was the next logical product to follow suit. My encouragement for HotBot going all XHTML/CSS was initially met with a lot of resistance. Much more hesitation than I was getting for the Wired News design. But a simple design proof-of-concept mocked up that week using all CSS (which looks remarkably similar to what they’ve launched) started turning the team on to the possibilities. The Wired News redesign launch in October sealed the deal.

The “Classic” skin roughly shows the design we started with. In my opinion, they should have kept it as the default skin. But a few rounds of user testing held product management back from the bolder background color choices in Classic. Thus, the [current] default skin was created as a compromise. Half-sized screenshots of the unmuddled [validating] version of the original design are now available in the Websites section of my portfolio.


As a product, does it make sense? Is there a reason to use a search engine that seems to be a copy of the failed metacrawlers from several years ago? Why not just go straight to the results providers themselves? Why not at least make HotBot the smart aggregator of results so that it chooses the right combination of providers for you? Is there a benefit to the changeable skins for a search engine? Could it be harmful to the brand? These were all questions I asked when I arrived on the scene. Some I got answers to. Some I didn’t. Some I’m still asking myself, and for HotBot’s sake, I hope the product managers are too.