A close family friend once told me that she always reads the first and last page of any book she’s thinking of reading.
This is the way she picks out a reading list.
My mom calls it “tasting”. Some might call it cheating. I call it browsing.
We often associate browsing with bookstores or libraries, or nowadays, even databases. We’re natural browsers.
It’s a crucial component of how we discover information and make decisions, and we browse more than we think.
Ever run to the grocery store to buy food for a meal you hadn’t planned or had to pick out something to wear? Both these activities require us to scan, discover, and finally, arrive at some conclusion. As you aimlessly walk up and down the aisles of a store or peruse the contents of your closet, everything you see or touch will slowly bring you closer to finding exactly what you need.
This process of sorting through our choices is at the heart of browsing. It’s our way of organically developing an idea that is often vague into a more clearly defined and precise need.
Search vs. browsing
The internet has grown (and is growing) at such an incredible rate that it can be difficult for us to truly discover everything the web has to offer on a given topic or within a specific genre.
Normally, when we want to find content that interests or relates to us, we search for it on the internet or sometimes, we discover it via our social networks. However, internet search and social networks are still limited in terms of giving us a real-world discovery experience.
For example, you need to find a recipe for dinner. You know you’d like to cook something with chicken, and you’d like to spend about an hour making it. You conduct a search based on these needs and find a recipe that fits your defined requirements.
You decide you want to make dinner after work and stop in at the grocery store on your way home. You’re not really sure what you want, but as you wander around, you’re able to process what you’re in the mood for and take into account what’s looks fresh, or what’s on sale. The visual and tactile information you collect helps you choose homemade tomato soup and whole-wheat grilled cheese as your final dinner choice.
This is the main problem. Search requires that you have a definitive objective in mind before you even sit down to start searching.
So, how many of us really know what we’re looking for?
As it turns out, not very many of us.
Mashable had a wonderful article on the subject of content and information seeking behavior, highlighting the limitations of search-based or social methods of content discovery that dominate our web experience today. Self-proclaimed “radical” librarian, Laura Larsell, claims that most users rarely know what they’re looking for when they sit down and do a web search.
The problem, Larsell claims, is that current systems of classification online aren’t conducive to casual discovery, like the natural ones we would encounter in an offline environment, such as a library or a bookstore.
She makes a good point. Online content discovery lacks the everyday trappings of a good browse. Search yields better results when we know what we want beforehand. However, the internet has yet to deliver an easy way for us to discover everything it has to offer.
What about social?
The emerging model right now is social and according to a recent report by Blinkx, social networks are beating out search engines for online content discovery.
Discovering information sources from your online communities has become an essential part of the social ecosystem. Often, we find content that interests us from previously unknown sources through our networks, and it allows us to skip the searching aspect of content discovery. The best and most important news is shared right on our networks by our friends or by field experts.
However, it still limits our ability to fully see the big picture. Popular stories often overwhelm and conceal other content that you might personally find interesting. Yes, social allows you to receive personalized recommendations from people you trust, but it also restricts the amount of niche topics or sources you will come across.
The truth is, the social model is also still in its infancy, and we are all still trying to find (or create) the right tools to handle our social streams of information. Instead of searching out content like we have in previous years, it’s now being delivered directly to us in real-time, and there’s too much of it. We’ve arrived at the point of saturation where there is more content than we can ever possibly consume.
Browsing as the ultimate model
The online world is still struggling to come up with tools to help us sort through the clutter, filter out the noise, and find the most relevant stories on our social networks. Currently, we can use a whole battery of tools to help us try and control how we consume our social content, but similar to search, it still has not reached the point of providing a browsing experience that mimics the real world.
So, how do we get from a physical experience to an online experience? Computers can only process information within a certain scope, since they can’t analyze the way a person could. While there are some projects whose main focus is indexing content, the web is growing too fast to index content manually. These projects are a step in the right direction, but they are often crowd-sourced and ultimately, too slow to keep up with the rate that content is appearing on the web.
The advancements of technology such as machine learning and the ability to channel user feedback into meaningful information are opening up doors to a new world of online browsing. For example, here at Wikidi, machine learning is an area that we find particularly compelling. Many of our other projects have a focus on artificially intelligent technology, or have an aim that allows a future focus on it.
Being able to deliver the ability to browse the internet, as we would a store, would change the way we discover things forever. Already, there are plenty of tools and services that are trying to accomplish just that. Services like StumbleUpon and Trapit focus on finding the best content on the web based on your personal interests and your feedback.
We believe that this is the kind of work that will eventually open up a new generation of online experience, and in that same vein, it is the kind of work that will eventually help to transform online browsing into something more human.