Thursday, November 30, 2006

Search vs. Browse

Insane babblings about why people use search instead of browsing, and visa versa.

Why do people use search instead of browsing or visa versa? We'll I'm sure that there are studies out detailing why, but I prefer to wing it based solely on opinion with no facts to support me. So here are my reasons why people prefer searching:

  1. They think it's quicker (but will try browsing if searching fails)
  2. They know exactly what they're looking for
  3. They don't trust (or have had a bad experience with) the site's browsing architecture
  4. They want to get instant results without a lot of steps (this is a combination of 1, 2, and 3)

Ultimately (particularly for a younger audience who are a) more web savvy, and b) want instant results without intermediary steps) searching is about getting to the desired information as quickly as possible without having to make decisions and without thinking about choices. This approach is referred as teleporting. Whether or not this is a good thing I'll leave to others to debate.

However, "The Perfect Search Engine Is Not Enough: A Study of Orienteering Behavior in Directed Search" (now I'm starting to do my research) suggests just the opposite, that people tend to browse first and search only when that fails, and that people tend to return to browsing (or "orienteering") even after a successful search.

One interesting paper (Effects of Scent and Breadth on Use of Site-Specific Search on E-Commerce Web Sites) found that the decision of a user to use search or browse approaches to finding information depended on several things, including:

  • How clearly organized and labeled a site's menu system was ("information scent")
  • How prominent search and browse areas were
  • The user's inclination to search or browse

Here's an article that summarizes the two papers mentioned above - that I found only after I found the other two.

The Upshot
What's the upshot of all this for administrators and others trying to plan a new website?

My take on it is this: If it's true that people prefer to browse (I plan to test this hypothesis), then we need to make absolutely certain that our site structure is extremely clear, well-designed, intuitive and easy to use. As Katz and Byrne say, "providing site search should not be used to compensate for poor menu design, and provide[s] further evidence regarding the design of effective menu structures."

Let's face it, a perfect search engine would always give you exactly what you wanted the first time every time. If that happened, no site would even have a menu; they'd all look like the Google home page.

But search engines aren't perfect for several reasons (ambiguity of terms, lack of context, limited algorithms, and poor labeling being just a few). And if people prefer to use menu systems over search, it is a condemnation of the ability search engines to return desired results, because we all know how poorly organized most menu systems are.

People are choosing the lesser of two evils in this case. And though there are a few things we can do to improve search results, we have much less control over that than we do over the information architecture and menu systems of our sites.

Katz, M. A. and Byrne, M. D. (2003). Effects of Scent and Breadth on Use of Site-specific Search on E-Commerce Web Sites. ACM Transactions on Computer-Human Interaction, 10(3) pp 198-220. (Link)

Teevan, J., Alvarado, C., Ackerman, M. and Karger, D. (2004). The perfect Search Engine is not Enough: A Study of Orienteering Behavior in Directed Search. Proceedings of ACM CHI 2004, pp. 415-4422. (Link)

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