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.


Patrick said...

I would put them in the Amazon category. There is an organization that allows you to navigate, but there is also too much information, so search is typically required.

Paul said...

Since it's not an either/or proposition, you should probably embrace both. Degree program requirements are a classic example. If I'm comparing the requirements for two majors within, say, a School of Business Administration, but which are in different departments: Economics and Marketing, I'm going to want a quick search interface to call up each one and place it in a tab. I don't want to navigate up and down the SBA's org chart to establish my side-by-side. But if I'm a high school junior evaluating the two departments, or holding up this SBA against another, I'm going to browse through the departmental hierarchy to see what each is about, including the program of study requirements.

Just had this debate with a client, and it's remarkable how little they consider the thinking of the potential student who is not yet familiar with academic nomenclature. I was looking at colleges when I was a high school junior, and knew what I wanted to study, but had only the vaguest notion of the University>College>School>Department>Major organization.