Searching and Sorting isn’t Browsing

Why your more efficient website may loose you customers

If you live near Boston, one of the nice aspects of January is MIT’s Independent Activities Period (IAP). MIT transforms itself into a free form stage for hundreds of mini-courses and workshops. Participants can study languages (natural or computer), tour laboratories, make music, explore exoplanets, conduct experiments, or build something.

Until a few years ago, IAP featured an engaging comic book style catalog. It was quirky, engaging and fun to browse. It led me to take workshops I didn’t know I wanted and so would not have searched for.

That catalog is no more. In it’s place is an austere website with a search box and tables listing workshops by title, date, and subject. Not only is the life of the catalog drained out of its web successor, it’s much more difficult to use.

The same could be said of numerous sites offering anything from enterprise software to consumer electronics. Print catalogs have declined and been replaced by online promotions ranging from PPC to social media. These bring you to a website or landing page where you can view a product, search for other products, or leave. What you often can’t do is browse.

Yet prospects don’t always know what they want, so they can’t articulate it well enough to type into a search box. If they find your site, they may bounce. In contrast, Pinterest is so popular, because it not only allows, but invites browsing as well as search.

Printed catalogs can be expensive. Send to the wrong target and you’ve made costly junk. This irritates recipients enough that services such as Catalog Choice ( have emerged to help prospects avoid catalogs.

This in no way diminishes their value when delivered to the right hands. A good catalog engages by illustrating a narrative and allowing chance connection with a product, an image, or a concept. The browser is involved in ways the searcher is unlikely to be.

Of course, it’s possible to deliver a panoramic experience on the web, tablet, or smartphone. A number of services such as flipsnack, flippingbook, and PageTurnPro make it relatively easy to convert static documents into a literal page turner. As a fallback, have the catalog as a download.

Whatever you do, give your visitors an alternative to rectangular tables or the open mouth of a search box.