Recently, Ben Gomes at Google shared some experimental testing they had been performing related to their search results page. The first experiment showed two pages each with a different presentation.
I'm ashamed to admit that I couldn't tell the difference between the pages until I read the entire article. Can you tell? Surprisingly, a mere 10-20 pixels difference in white space between results impacted the number of users that clicked the top search result. According to Ben, the first search result was clicked more often when surrounded by larger white space, but with such limited knowledge of the test, I'm unaware of how significantly the user behavior changed. However, it's worth acknowledging what most designers already know, which is that white space is a valuable tool that shouldn't be taken lightly and can, among other things, bring attention to important content on the screen.
When I think of all the times that I've been wrongly forced to scrunch content above the fold because people don't like to scroll (thanks Jakob) it gives me hives of the cluttered kind. Little wins like this give me hope that the world is evolving and growing. Or is it a win? I ventured out to Google and searched for the Australian Olympic swim team only to see that the additional white space was nowhere to be found. Ben does suggest that it may not be implemented yet.
If the first result really is the best choice then I'd expect Google to keep the white space and focus attention on the first search result. But I wonder whether users would accomplish their goal or whether the second and third results are just as valid if not more so? That's where these experiments become tricky because data can only tell us so much. The interpretation of the data is the critical step and is hard to determine without understanding users' goals and motivations.
Who knows whether the white space will live or die but it's good to see that its impact is acknowledged (at least invisibly).