Friday, September 9, 2011

The Lost Art of Browsing

I saw an article on Mashable this week, called Why Browsing is So Important to Content Discovery. It's about how browsing online is nearly impossible, with so much emphasis on searching. Probably because I work in a library, I know how crucial browsing can be for some people, so this article made a lot of sense.

Sometimes you know what you need to find out, and so you head to your favorite search engine and type in some keywords. You sort through the results list and hopefully eventually end up with an answer. Transaction ended, customer happy. But what if you're not sure what you're looking for? What if you don't even know what you need until you see it? How many times have you been in a store and had a display of items caught your eye? You suddenly decide you must pick up one of those items, even though it's not on your list of things to get.

This happens in the library all the time, and I'm sure bookstores see it too. A person comes in and may or may not have a specific book in mind, but they spend some time at a shelf, glancing at covers and titles, maybe reading the jacket flap. Maybe they didn't realize their favorite author has just published a new book or maybe a topic has grabbed their attention, and they head to the check-out line with something to read that they didn't know they wanted until they saw it.

Can this experience be translated to the web? Certainly websites like Amazon can offer "similar items" ("other people who purchased this item also purchased these other items") or offer a click-through list of subjects. Clothing sites usually sort their wares according to gender, style, season, etc. Wikipedia offers links to other entries and outside sources, so readers can follow their interests like breadcrumbs. Yahoo started out by trying to categorize the web until it exploded, and it got to be too much work to sort through every website. Spiders can automatically crawl the web and pick up on keywords in an effort to itemize sites, but is it really possible to browse online?

Do you sometimes feel overwhelmed by search engines? Do you sometimes need those clickable subject lists to lead you to something interesting? Do you wish you could browse the web instead of searching? Leave your comments below.

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