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Search vs browse — different activities, but complementary. Every website should have at least one of them, preferably both. What you choose to include depends on your business model, domain of expertise, and user expectations. 

Integrating both search and browse involves:

  • Satisfying user intent — What does the user want to do: search for something specific or browse through your catalog?
  • Providing recommendations — How do you encourage a user to go beyond their original intent and discover more of your catalog — without interfering with their search and browse intentions? 

Said another way, the best websites enable users to pull the information they need while seamlessly pushing related information to the user. This is a win-win for both user and business: mastering this pull/push dynamic creates greater customer satisfaction and engagement. This article is about how to do that.

Satisfying the user’s intent when considering search vs browse

We start off by dividing users into two camps: those who search and those who browse, aka as those who want to find and those who want to explore. We do that for two reasons: to uncover the underlying needs of searching and browsing, and to define the best user experience to address those needs. 

But we don’t end there. Browse and search work together. Some industries are more browse-centric, others rely on a powerful search; but all websites can benefit from a combination of the two to provide the most complete and intuitive shopping experience for all users.

Foundationally, the intent of the user (to find or explore) is what separates search from browse.

What is the intent of the searcher?

The intent of the searcher is to fetch or find – whether a specific product or a specific category of products. 

They call searchers “spearfishers”, determined to catch something exact or fairly well defined. The faster and easier the better: frustration exasperates the single-mindedness of the searcher. When users go to Amazon to buy a computer, they’ve already done their research, they just need a search box, some faceting, and user reviews to make their decision.

What is the intent of the browser?

The intent of the browser is to explore and learn about what you offer, to discover

Browsers cast a wider net. They have more time and patience — as long as the browse experience allows them to explore easily. Though a browser may sometimes switch roles and become a searcher, their ultimate goal is to flip through pages to discover and be inspired by what you have to offer. In the browse scenario, the search box is not central (though it should be easily available). What is central to browsing is the navigation and showcase of your products and content. Navigation involves menus and facets; showcase involves category pages and carousels. We’ll see many examples below, but here are some example of excellent browse and discovery experiences:

  • Fashion shoppers browsing with curiosity a brand’s special collections
  • Technology buyers exploring and researching the newest high tech
  • Homeowners using the immersive Ikea experience to imagine different home designs
  • Travelers planning their vacations as they browse destinations
  • Movie goers browsing genre, theme, and directors before choosing a film 

Accommodating both searchers and browsers

People sometimes switch between searching and browsing. They start out by browsing a website, clicking on menus, categories, and different pages, and if the experience is fruitful, they’ll convert to searching for specific items. 

Another scenario is search-to-browse, where a user queries a specific item to find the best browsing starting point. For example, they type in “phone” on a popular marketplace, and instead of getting a list of phones, they’re taken to a completely different part of the website devoted to smartphones. This is called a category page (illustrated below), where the website can display different phones and accessories as recommendations. 

How to promote discovery and engagement when considering search vs browse

Answer: By curating your content with recommendations, merchandising, personalization, category pages – essentially all browse-oriented UI components that we illustrate in this article. In the next sections, we’ll take a closer look at these browse elements and see how they can encourage further discovery.

A successful discovery experience provides more than what a user intends to do. This comes naturally in a browse-centric UI. More care must be given to the search UI. A searcher can become quickly frustrated by too many marketing campaigns and carousels and category pages of information. Too much information obstructs their simple intent to search and scan search results. Searchers need more space to search and less space to encourage further discovery. That said, subtle merchandising, federated search (discussed below), and related items are more effective discovery techniques. But in the end, the searchers themselves should make the choice to switch roles.

As we’ll show, the full potential of online discovery covers a broad range of search-intent goals that can only be met with well-designed search and browse interfaces.

The components of a search interface

Let’s first define the searcher’s basic needs:

  • Finding something specific
  • A fast and simple process
  • Immediate satisfaction in finishing their search task
  • Relevant results
  • An easy to navigate/simple UI

In sum: Searchers need an easy way to single out what they need. This can be either on the first or second search, and with the help of faceting to drill down and reduce their results until arriving at what they need — with no confusion or frustration. Here are some essential UI elements:

  • A prominent search box
  • As-you-type instant results
  • Easy to scan results
  • Faceting
  • Allowing typing mistakes and synonyms
  • Highlighting matching keywords

Advanced components for search

It’s worth considering the full potential of search. Searchers trying to

When considering Search Intent in your own content or that of a client, it’s essential to recognize the five key types of Search Intent if you want to achieve your goals. These are informationaltransactionalcommercial investigationnavigational or location-based

We recommend going beyond the standard search with a richer UI. This will increase search box usage and ensure that you meet the searcher’s needs. Here’s why: users do not always know how to search, or how to adapt and change a search strategy if their original strategy doesn’t work. Also, some users are not tech-savvy enough to make the most of a standard search. They need more hand-holding. A better search UI guides these users to search and to continue to search without giving up. This is where you need to go beyond the standard search.

There are many best-in-class features that serve to create this enhanced search experience. Here’s an ecommerce example that includes many of the features listed below. As you can see, with all these extra features, you can offer the user more options and channels to find what they need. In addition, they may discover promotions, best sellers, or related items. 

Let’s look closely at each feature:

  • Query Suggestions shows a user a set of quality queries to help them formulate the best query for their search. These suggestions are based on prior search behavior collected by analytics. 

This image combines suggested queries with suggested categories and products. 

This illustration shows the close connection of query suggestion to the next element, federated search.

  • Federated search displays multiple results for a single query. The results can come from different data sources. Typically, you display results along with blogs, reviews, categories, and related items.

As done here, where the query “eye” brings back suggested queries, products, recommended products, and FAQ. Four sets of content using one query, coming from four different datasources.

 

  • Enhanced faceting provides more in-depth and relevant faceting. They can be placed in different parts of the screen, not just on the left side.

  • Merchandising proposes or promotes items, runs campaigns and promotions, displays banners.

The components of a browse interface

Many industries use browsing components to satisfy a user’s curiosity, variety of needs, and their desire for amusement and information. Industries that capitalize on browsing include media, travel, entertainment, news, social media, image surfing, and app stores. 

Increasingly, ecommerce businesses, which normally focuses on search, have begun to integrate browse elements into their UI. You can see examples of this in fashion, technology, and car shopping. Ecommerce users often start out with curiosity, looking for inspiration and information before making a decision.

One thing to note is that users come to your website with different intentions, depending on their needs at that moment. It might be New Year’s Eve or the start of the summer. They might be planning a trip or a wedding. 

With all that in mind, let’s define what the browser is doing. 

  • Not seeking an answer, looking instead for multiple items and suggestions
  • To research, learn
  • Be entertained, for amusement
  • Be inspired, satisfy curiosity
  • Bargain hunting
  • Checking the news headlines or feeds on social media
  • And so on.

The components for an advanced browse UI

To compare to the standard search, a simple browse interface adds related items, promotional banners, and menu navigation: 

However, you’ll want to build more than that. Here’s a list of some of the most used browse-based UI elements. What’s interesting about these UI components is that they use simple ideas to create a powerful end result.

  • Carousels display multiple rows of eye-catching items grouped together by category. Examples include NetFlix and other streaming services that show different genres in horizontal carousels, educational sites that group courses by subject matter or certifications, supermarkets that create online aisles, and marketplaces that group their massive catalog by categories.

Let’s look at a food webiste that has designed each carousel to look like an aisle in a supermarket:

  • Category pages showcase a group of related items on a single page. Examples include pages of romantic comedies, all iPhones or Apple products, the autumn fashion collection, or political stories in an online journal.

For example, a furniture company gives the user a category page devoted to “curtains” that includes carousels with different curtain sub-categories and promotions. They also provide menus that allow for further browsing. There are also numerous buttons that allow users to start searching. The overall effect is one of inspiration and discovery, with light encouragement to switch from browse to search.

 

Other elements include:

  • Menu systems enable users to navigate directly to different items or category pages.
  • Related items and recommendations suggest further possibilities and relevance.
  • Breadcrumbs, bookmarks, wishlists allow users to know where they are and return to where they were.

The challenges of combining search and browse

Many UI elements (like federated search, merchandising, faceting) can be just as good for browsing as for searching. These features enable a searcher to easily switch between both the two modes. 

However, there are some specific UI patterns (category pages, carousels, thumbnailed-info) that sometimes work only for the browser, not the searcher.  

The challenge is how to introduce browse features like carousels without breaking the search experience.

For example, browsers need to see information highlighted in ways that make it easy for them to scan and understand immediately. That’s why carousels, which present information in easy to scan thumbnails, offers a better browsing experience than a lot of words. Do you want to distract the browser with long descriptions or too much information? Do you really want to display anxiety-provoking prices? 

However – back to the searcher: if you don’t display price and description, how can the searcher compare, decide, and buy? 

Here’s an interface that offers price for both browse and search — the user must hover over the image to get the price.

Mixing search and browse depends on the use-case and UI

It’s important to define your use case. For businesses whose main use case is helping users find specific items, they need to provide a prominent search box, query suggestions, relevant results, and faceting. These features can also serve to help the user “browse” — that is, to compare, be momentarily curious, and be inspired before buying. But their primary purpose is for search. For example, construction workers look for a particular dimension and size for nails or drill bits.

An example that doesn’t work for searchers is a brand website like Apple whose engaging and successful UI is designed exclusively for browsing and discovery. A searcher will get lost and frustrated if they have to navigate many pages of products, features, and interactive graphics to find the button that says “Go here to buy”.

The thing is, Apple doesn’t have to organize its sight for searching. It’s entire goal is the wow-effect: inspiration and teaching. The same for clothing designers, whose primary goal is to showcase their recent collections and guide users to pages devoted to special occasions and events. 

But there are many websites that balance the two, allowing browsers to switch easily into search mode: 

Industry – Media

Let’s move to an online radio and streaming journal, which allows users to browse headlines and story categories. They provide related links and enticing recommendations. They also offer a search box and faceting (especially date and topic) to pin down the most relevant stories.

 

Industry — travel / coworking

We know Airbnb’s interface, which allows you to browse your destination before searching for an apartment or home. In our example below, we illustrate how WeWork has followed that browse-to-search pattern, adding an additional co-working touch. By providing a landing page with office types, and then a category page for each office type, with a comparison feature, WeWork gives its users enough information to explore and ultimately pick the right work environment. At that point, they are taken to a map-driven reservation process to search for location.

Conclusion — So who wins? Search or browse? 

People used to browse websites more often than search. While they searched the web with Google, Yahoo, and other internet search engines, when they came to a particular website, their instinct was to browse, which meant using menus, clicking on links, and scanning different pages. 

Times have changed. We’ve learned that “browsing” is an inefficient search in disguise. Quality search now plays an equally central role in marketplaces like Amazon, streaming services like Spotify, app stores like Apple, and media collections like Pinterest. A search box is essential, due to the massive, diverse, and ever changing offerings of these businesses. 

That said, a balance has been struck. While businesses like Netflix, Spotify, social media platforms, and online news journals rely on a mostly non-search-box browsing interface, many search-centric websites like Amazon and eBay are beginning to adopt these same browse-based elements. And some sites, like Airbnb and WeWork, are creating a perfect blend of both, depending on what part of the journey the user is on: people browse destinations before searching for housing. 

Online business are learning how crucial it is to build a browse experience as efficient as search to find content and be inspired.

This back and forth between search and browse will continue. Searching and browsing are two distinct modes of interacting with your website. There’s no winner or loser. They differ in significant ways and are equally important in all domains of online business, including media, ecommerce, educational services, SaaS, travel — essentially, every kind of business.

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