Google Says Switching Away From Its Search Engine Is Easy. It’s Not.

Imagine if your shopping cart was loaded with the same box of cereal every time you went to the grocery store.

This cereal happens to be the most popular, so it’s convenient for the store to have it in the cart. If you don’t like it, you can easily put it back on the shelf and grab another box.

That’s essentially the crux of Google’s defense against the Justice Department subsequent antitrust proceedings — the federal government’s first such case in the modern Internet age — which is now playing out in court.

The government has accused Google illegally using partnerships with cell phone manufacturers, computer manufacturers and browser developers to suppress competitors in online searches. As part of these partnerships, the The Justice Department argues, Google has made its search engine the default service on the vast majority of consumer electronics, such as smartphones. This then stopped people from trying alternative search engines like Bing, DuckDuckGo and others.

But Google has argued that it’s easy for people to change their search engine – as easy as putting a box of cereal back on the shelf.

The process raises questions about how and why we use Google Search. Many of us grew up searching the web on Google because Google seems to produce the best results with minimal effort. But if there was something better, would we really have known about it since Google was installed on most of our devices? And even if we had known, would we have just stuck with Google since its search engine was set as the default?

I decided to test how easy or hard it really is to switch to another search engine. In a blog post this month: Google said the change was straightforward process and offered three examples:

  • It takes four taps on an iPhone.

  • This takes two clicks in the Safari browser on a Mac.

  • On Android phones, it takes two taps.

So I followed Google’s lead and shared the company’s guidelines with a panel of three design veterans. The bottom line: It’s hard to switch – and most people would probably give up before making the switch.

“God help me, I’m dead,” Ted Selker, a product design veteran who worked at IBM and Xerox PARC said after reading the steps to change the search engine on an iPhone.

Harry Brignull, a user experience consultant in the UK, concluded via Google search: “Most people just stick with it.”

I had similar takeaways. This is what the design experts and I discovered after trying to stop searching on Google.

Google said iPhone owners could switch to a different search engine in four steps by opening the Settings app, tapping Safari, tapping Search Engine, and then selecting a search engine.

In reality it is more complicated.

Once the Settings app opens, Safari doesn’t immediately appear on the screen. It’s buried under 36 other menu items, requiring the user to swipe up at least twice to find the Safari menu. In reality, it takes six taps.

But even four steps would probably be too much for many of us, Mr. Selker said. This might have been easy 15 years ago, when most web browsing took place on stationary computers, but in the smartphone age, someone looking for this setting could be interrupted on the move – to get on a bus, for example.

“You can’t expect people to have multi-level memories,” he said.

Google says Mac users can switch the default search engine in the Safari browser to another service with just two clicks – by first clicking the magnifying glass icon and then selecting a different search engine like Yahoo, Bing or DuckDuckGo.

This is much easier than on an iPhone. But not everyone knows that the magnifying glass icon is a button – it allows people to enter a search query into the search bar.

Even more problematic, switching search engines can be confusing because the steps are not consistent between Safari on an iPhone and Safari on a Mac, said Tony Hu, a director at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology who oversees a technical leadership program.

“Overall, the average person would probably struggle with this,” he said.

Mr. Selker said a better design would have been to make the search engine switch more “intrusive,” such as asking users to select a search engine when they open the browser.

“It has to alert you that it’s there until you dismiss it,” he said.

On an Android phone, Google says all it takes is a long press on the search bar to display the Remove button. Users can then tap it to remove the Google search bar widget from the home screen.

This example is particularly flawed. First, Google’s steps to remove the search bar widget work on some Samsung phones but not all Android devices. For example, if a user long-presses the search bar on Google’s Pixel phones, no remove option will appear.

Most importantly, removing the search widget will delete a shortcut to the Google search bar on the home screen, but will not change the search engine in an Android web browser. Switching to another search engine requires different steps. It is similar to the path on iPhones a four-step process This includes opening the browser and changing its settings.

“The overarching lesson from the government’s antitrust case against Google is that when companies make arrangements to become the default option, they understand that they are likely to remain with the status quo because switching to an alternative requires awareness and requires effort,” said Mr. Brignull, the author of “Deceptive Patterns: Discover the tricks tech companies use to control you.”

Google said in a statement that it would be easy for people to change their default search engine on Android devices and Apple’s Safari. The company added that on Windows computers, which require a long process to switch from Bing as the default search engine to Microsoft’s Edge browser, the vast majority of people chose Google as their search engine.

With that in mind, and with the instructions you now have, you can try other search engines. If it turns out you prefer Google anyway, at least it’s your decision – not Google’s.