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What’s the difference between searching and discovering, and why does it matter?

Algolia’s focus is providing users with a seamless, high-quality search and discovery web experience with the aim of increasing content and product discoverability across the Internet. However, some people find the phrase “search and discovery” a little puzzling because the two words seem like synonyms. They wonder why we’re including both words to refer loosely to the full experience.

Let’s take a quick look at what these concepts mean in terms of how people behave online, and why both activities are unique and valuable when it comes to improving site usability.

What it all means

Let’s start by contemplating the negative space: what isn’t search and discovery?

When you’ve found a specific product on an ecommerce website and you’re about to pay for it, I’m sure you’d agree you’re neither searching nor discovering.

But what if you’re about to provide your credit card number at checkout and, based on metrics, you’re shown “People who bought this also bought…”, other items you might like? If you do like one of those items and put it in your cart, haven’t you “discovered” something?

Let’s crack open the online dictionary and look up these two search terms:

Search means to “look into or over carefully or thoroughly in an effort to find or discover something.”

Discover means to “make known or visible; to obtain sight or knowledge for the first time.”

Uh-oh. Based on these definitions, searching seems to be nothing more than a part of discovering. And isn’t discovering the last step in searching? Yes. These activities can definitely overlap. 

However, they do actually differ slightly. Searching is exclusively an active pursuit, while discovering can also be passive — something that just happens accidentally as you’re doing something else (for instance, searching). 

Furthermore, the “first-time” language for discovery is key. When you’re searching, you know specifically what you’re looking for or where it might be located, but when you’re discovering, you don’t know what you’re looking for or where to find it because you’ve never seen it.

In short:

Search is informed by a higher level of specific intent and a narrower degree of precision. 

Discovery is informed by a higher level of general intent and a broader degree of precision.

OK, we’re getting there. If someone seeks out something with a high degree of precision, they’re searching. If they learn about something for the first time, and if that thing is in any way relevant to their intent, then they’re discovering.

Discovering a new world

In the late 1400s, before we had accurate maps, people didn’t know how much land there was on Earth, where the land masses were, and how they were shaped. European explorers set out to discover land masses and whatever else they ran into. Once a land mass had been sighted for the first time; people could never discover it again. Straightforward enough. 

Now let’s look at how discovery works on the Web. Someone searching for a product could accidentally discover other items. They could stumble across a new brand, for instance, and adopt it as their own. They might like it so much that after that pleasant discovery experience, they’d never again search for another brand.

Imagine that you’re on a mission of your own: you have a big night out coming up and nothing to wear. You open a browser tab on your laptop or do a mobile search and go to the ecommerce home page of your favorite online store or fashion marketplace. 

What do you see? In addition to the ecommerce site search box, probably a few rows (“carousels”) of products and a large ad for a collection of items. A drop-down menu of categories, some trending collections, a couple of promotions. 

There’s no place like (the) home page

In concert with the search bar, what are all these eye-catching things there to do? You guessed it: help you discover things. Optimize your discovery journey. Pique your interest. They’re not based on your search intent or data about you, and perhaps you’re learning about them for the first time.

Can you think of any element of an ecommerce home page that’s not there to aid in discovery? There are some minor non-product ecommerce website elements, like footnotes and disclaimers, but it’s obvious that search and discovery are at the heart of pretty much everything related to the user experience.

OK, you need that outfit. You look at the top of the online retailer’s website. You click on the category menus, look at the filter options, select your gender, and click on “Jeans”, which lands you on a category page. 

Right now you’re in both specific-product search mode and open-minded discovery mode because you’re looking for something in particular but open to finding new product types as well. You want to discover a country but you’re not sure which might be available.

When I started working at Algolia, my most-eye-opening moment was when I understood just how much of an application for a website or mobile platform could be powered by search features and discovery technology, which could lead to a substantially better user experience and ultimately, a higher conversion rate. I had no idea that search analytics could be so all-encompassing.

The power of awesome algorithms

For example, you’ve now reached the category landing page, filled with jeans product names, descriptions, images, andd so on. This is actually a search results page powered by Algolia sending an empty search with a filter like “gender:X AND category:jeans”. Jeans aren’t the only Algolia-provided thing you’re seeing, though. There’s also some merchandising: a banner and some curated collections of jeans organized by product type; perhaps brand or style. 

The collections are tailored to your unique preferences. Your search results page has been adjusted based on your customer segment and earlier shopping behavior (if applicable) to help you zero in on relevant products in your preferred brands, colors, and styles. In fact, carousel layout and design can even be adjusted based on site search data about who you are!

Back to your jeans. You want to be more specific on your preferences. You adjust the faceted search price slider to reflect your budget, and you pick a style to investigate. These simple moves provide the ecommerce search engine with key insights about how to respond and provide relevant results, both immediately in real time and on your future visits. 

You click on a great-looking pair of jeans to go to the product page and check out the photos and specs. Hey, this is your country now and you’re free to explore it. 

You ask yourself, “Are these the jeans I want?” Maybe you decide that the wash is not dark enough, and that other buyers’ reviews are not as glowing as you’d like to see on an ecommerce website before you plunk down $150.

You realize you want something similar but slightly different. You’ve narrowed your relevant products from all this discovery activity and have now mostly switched to search mode. What could help streamline your customer experience at this stage?

Widgets to the rescue

One of Algolia’s products is Recommend, which has a “Related products” widget. That’s what you could be shown next: similar products — jeans in the same style but a different color, or cropped instead of full length, or even pants in the same brand. You check out a few of these items.

Voila…you’ve found exactly the right jeans. Think about it: that’s a pretty amazing feat. It didn’t take the search engine long (15 minutes?), but it switched from considering your broad intent and applying your refinements to being more predictive and helpful based on what it had learned about your intent. 

And yet, it isn’t finished. As you click “Add to cart,” you’re shown another carousel, “Frequently bought together.” Yep, the handiwork of another Algolia widget. This one focuses you on relevant products you could pair with those new jeans to create the perfect look. It shows you coordinating shirts, shoes, belts. These recommendations are based on your purchase history and what specific product combinations other people have put in their shopping carts. More cool things to discover.

This process of refining on-site search and discovery is certainly not perfect. For example, if after falling in love with your jeans, you decide you also want a jacket, you might start the search experience over by browsing categories of jackets. If you do that, the switch flips and the search engine goes back to learning about you based on your broad intent, then switches to providing relevant results.

Still, wouldn’t you admit that this ecommerce site search process is pretty close to perfect?

What you’ve discovered

Congratulations — you now understand what “search and discovery” means, and you’re probably impressed by the power of these elements to work together on an ecommerce website to lead people to exactly what they want and optimize the user experience.

I’ll leave you with a few take-aways:

  • Far more of a web-enabled application than you may realize is powered by a search and discovery platform
  • Search functionality and discovery functionality are intertwined in interesting and complementary ways that optimize the user experience
  • An advanced search and discovery platform for an ecommerce store can use machine learning to collect and analyze site search data about a user’s preferences over a period of time, allowing the shopper to find things faster the next time they do an ecommerce site search

Thanks for sticking with me through this exploration of search and discovery and how it impacts the customer experience! We welcome any questions you have about either search and discovery or our Algolia Search and Discovery platform.

About the author
Matthew Foyle

Solutions Engineer @ Algolia

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