Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Search vs. Browse - Let the Argument Continue!

Which is "better"? Neither. Both. It depends.

There is research out there (you go find it - I'm too lazy) that suggests that different people have different strategies for finding information on websites. Some people tend to browse while others tend to go straight to the search box.

I thought about this and came to the realization that it's not as simple as that. Viewing my own behavior, I've discovered that I use different information finding behaviors on different websites.

The following are a few examples. What does this have to do with redesigning university home pages? Not much, but we seem to keep arguing about whether searching or browsing is "better", and I thought I'd toss this into the mix.

Digital Photography Review- Generally speaking, I browse this site, except for the forums, which I almost always search for specific topics. Partly I browse because the site lacks a comprehensive search feature, but also because the site is clearly and simply organized.

National Weather Service, Sacramento - I always browse and never use search, mostly because I know where the things I want are and the site is fairly simple.

Amazon.com - I nearly always search if I know what I'm looking for. However, if I don't know the exact thing I'm looking for I'll typically search to the category and then browse from there to the specific item. For example, if I want to see if there are any new wine books out, I'll search for "wine" and then browse the rest of the way.

Wine Library - Again, if I know exactly what I want, I'll search for it. But if I'm just looking for a nice Bordeaux, I'll browse through the listings.

Wikipedia - OK, I admit, I'm one of those people who use Wikipedia and actually believe what they read. In Wikipedia I search exclusively. I'm not even sure if there is a browse feature.

IMDB - Again, exclusively search. Is there any other way in IMDB?

Anthony Dunn Photography - This is my own website. Clients often call and ask what photos I have of this or that and I use my website to see what I have. Depending on what people are looking for, I may browse through the stock photo section of the site or just do a search. I'd say that 70% of the time I use the search box.

CSU, Chico - I had to add this one, but it's not really fair include it. For the most part, I know the URLs of the sites I'm working on, so typically I just type in the URL. I've bookmarked a number of other pages. I pretty much only use the search box for testing and only browse to see if something is findable that way.

Bottom line: On different sites I use a different approach based on my needs and goals and on the capabilities of the site itself.
  • On sites I'm very familiar with and use the same information over and over, I tend to browse.
  • On commercial sites where I want to browse the wares, I tend to use a hybrid search/browse approach.
  • On informational sites, I tend to search for what I'm looking for.
Where would university sites fit in this spectrum? My guess is they would tend toward the informational, and I would probably tend to use search over browse.