1script - 2:51 pm on May 17, 2010 (gmt 0)
Well said, jmccormac. Having PhDs on staff is no guarantee of anything. I used to work for a company that employed Nobel laureates among other doctors in its world-renown research facility. So what? The company was such a mess (textbook bad management) that it's no longer even in existence as a separate entity. I think everybody should keep on the back of their mind that Google is a company run by people - the weakest link in every well designed system.
Brightest minds in the world? That's just a bunch of PR fluff. The same thing used to be said about Microsoft and every other high-tech business at one stage or another. It is a moronically badly designed interface.
Getting back to the new interface - I think it's the first big decision they made for purely business reason. As many people pointed out, everything is about keeping the eyeballs on THEIR property - a practice every webmaster is using on a daily basis. The left column pushes the search results 177px to the right and away from the top spot that Google themselves identify as THE best location for attention grabbers in their AdSense help. Depending on how your bookmarks are shown, the actual search results may not even make it into the first left third of the page - a setup that is guaranteed to have lower CTR by design.
I think this may be the first big move they made against the interests of website owners. I may be wrong but everything else I can think of could be explained (at least on the surface) by desire to make search results better or fresher, the latter being a different sort of "better" in some ADD-affected minds. And so this move is an indication that they are either getting cocky with their position in the search market or they see early indications that search is no longer going to carry the day for them. For example - brokering ads may be a more lucrative business. Or web-based applications (G* Docs style) or cloud computing (Amazon style) or mobile device OS or something else we don't yet know about that the PhDs dreamed up.
Anyways, in my previous post here I said "business as usual" going forward. I did not mean that nothing will change - quite the opposite. You are now guaranteed to have less G* traffic to depend on. Your long-tail based SERP will be same or similar but not the resulting traffic.