From browse to search – and back

browse (Photo credit: Chris Blakeley)

A conversation over lunch at work today got me thinking more about “browse” vs. “search”. These are our two most used paradigms for navigating around the web, but they’re obviously quite different. Ultimately, I wanted to try and distill the differences down to something essential if possible. I think it’s curiosity. On the desktop web, when you’re curious, you browse; when you’re focused you search.

“Browse” started out as the original paradigm, pioneered by links, then later directories such as Yahoo! “Browse” made sense when the web was new; it was a place to explore (one of the early search engines was named Magellan) and get lost in.

When Google came along, it made “search” the dominent paradigm first by indexing significantly more content (making the “browse” approach of directories unwieldy), then by explicitly orienting the interface of Gmail around a search-first mentality. The web became less about getting lost, and more about accomplishing a task.

Today on the desktop web, “search” is firmly in place as the dominant paradigm for both visitors locating content (as Matt noted, the unified search/address bar in Chrome and now Safari has helped with that) as well as for users managing content. It’s the approach you take when you have a job to be done.

Even so, there’s still a place on the web for the browse frame of mind – when you want to look up a company or person you want to know more about, your browse their website or profile; you’re not looking for anything in particular; just trying to get a sense for what they’re like.

That’s why I think the difference is curiosity: When you’re curious, browsing is casual and fun; searching feels restrictive and limiting. But when your mission is accomplishing a task (opening a file, updating a page, finding a receipt in your email), search is a mature technology, far more efficient and productive.

Curiosity, and “browse”, are making a big comeback though, and it’s thanks to the explosion of mobile devices and usage. Social networks are all about browse; Twitter and Facebook specifically are discovery engines based on spontaneous leaps from point to point.

Those are just two popular mobile ecosystems, but most apps are also browse-oriented: You’re either viewing your own data (bank account info, new or recent messages), or accessing the aforementioned discovery engines for leisure time; even search-oriented apps such as Yelp provide browse-oriented interface elements like suggestions and map view that lend more towards “browse”.

On mobile, “browse” isn’t just about curiosity as it is on the web. The specialized purpose of most apps makes search even less useful when you have a task to accomplish; the more an app knows about you and your job to be done, the more it can infer, suggest, and provide context for your work.

It looks like browse is coming back after all.

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