Digital Minefield

Why The Machines Are Winning

Browsing Is Not Searching


Browsing is not searching. Searching is all about results. Browsing is about unexpected discovery, the serendipitous surprise. Searching is about finding what you are looking for; it has a goal. Browsing is just looking; it has no goal.

Yet the word browsing stuck and here we are, stuck with it. If you’re old enough, try to remember what browsing actually means. Do you recall: Going shopping for no particular reason? Wandering the library’s shelves? Visiting car showrooms just to look at the new models? That was browsing.

In the beginning, before search engines, all we could do was browse the Internet. You went to a web page and followed its links. Through curiosity and perseverance, you found things of interest. The World Wide Web was just beginning. As tools for searching appeared, our searches became more focused. And more numerous. Ever increasing traffic became an opportunity for search engines to make big money.

In their beginnings, search engines were actually used for searching. As search traffic grew, search engines learned how to make money with advertising. But advertising needs to been seen to be profitable. So search engines developed ways to keep us searching, to keep us seeing their ads.

Browsers access the Internet; search engines search it—but at least half the time they don’t succeed. Sometimes the information can’t be found. But mostly they fail because they want to; they want you to continue “searching.” Whether they bury your answer in a mountain of irrelevancy or distract you with shiny things, search engines know how to keep you “searching.” But what you’re really doing is browsing.

If you spend enough time on a search engine, if you don’t find what you want quickly and exit, then what you’re doing is browsing, not searching. And you’re doing it because that’s the goal of today’s search engines. They’ve turned focused searching into aimless browsing. By maximizing our exposure to their advertising, they maximize their advertising dollars.

Perhaps you’re familiar with the phrase, Browser Wars. It used to describe the competition among the many browsers. Now it’s about search engines competing to keep us browsing. It’s no longer them against each other—it’s them against us.

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