I nearly wept when one of our young rising IT stars queried in a meeting why we had separated “search” and “browse” as headings for our discusssions on archive navigation functionality. So, to spare me further tears here are some distinctions and similarities. There won’t be anything new for information professionals, but I hope it will be useful if any of your colleagues in IT need a little help. I am sure this is far from comprehensive, so please leave additions and comments!
Differences between search and browse
Search is making a beeline to a known target, browse is wandering around and exploring.
Search is for when you know what you are looking for, browse is for when you don’t.
Search is for when you know what you are looking for exists, browse is for when you don’t.
Search expects you to look for something that is findable, browse shows you the sort of thing you can find.
Search is for when you already know what is available in a collection or repository, browse is how you find out what is there, especially if you are a newcomer.
Search is difficult when you don’t know the right words to use, browse offers suggestions.
Search is a quickfire answer, browse is educative.
Search is about one-off actions, browse is about establishing familiar pathways that can be followed again or varied with predictable results.
Search relies on the seeker to do all the thinking, browse offers suggestions.
Search is a tricky way of finding content on related topics, browse is an easy way of finding related content.
Search is difficult when you are trying to distinguish between almost identical content, browse can highlight subtle distinctions.
Search rarely offers completeness, browse often offers completeness.
Search is pretty much a “black box” to most people, so it is hard to tell how well it has worked, browse systems are visible so it is easy to judge them.
Search uses complex processing that most people don’t want to see, browse uses links and connections that most people like to see.
Search is based on calcuations and assumptions that are under the surface, browse systems offer frameworks that are more open.
Search works well on the web, because the web is so big no-one has had time to build an easy way to browse it, browse works well on smaller structured collections.
Search can run across vast collections, browse needs to be offered at human-readable scales.
Search does not usually give an indication of the size or scope of a collection, browse can be designed to indicate scale.
Similarities between search and browse
Search and browse are both ways of finding content.
Search and browse can both be configured in a huge variety of ways.
Search and browse both have many different mechanisms and implementations.
Search and browse should both be tailored to users’ needs.
Search and browse systems both require thought and editorial judgement in their creation so that they work effectively for any particular collection.
Search and browse systems can often both be created largely automatically.
Search and browse often both involve metadata.
Search and browse behaviours may be intertwined, with users switching from one to the other.
Search and browse may be used by the same users for different tasks at different times.
Search and browse both offer serendipity, although serendipitous opportunities are often hidden by interface design.
Should I offer my users search or browse?
Almost always, you should offer both. Unless you are very sure that your users will always be performing the same kind of task and have the same level of familiarity with your content. With small static collections of content, it may not matter too much, but for most content collections, users will probably want both, but which you make your main focus depends on the context and collection.
Shops might have lots of images and very little text, so a beautifully designed navigation system will help customers find – and buy – products they might not know about, while only a simple search system might be needed to cover searches for product names. A library will need to support lots of searches for titles and across catalogue text with a good search system, but will also need to help educate and inform users with a clear user-friendly browsable navigation system. A large incoherent collection of unstructured text with no particular purpose is likely to be difficult to navigate no matter what you design, so will need good search, but – apart from the web itself – such unbounded and unmanaged collections tend to be quite unusual.