November 20, 2008

Browsing and Searching in China

Mike Beltzner recently wrote an excellent blog post that puts the newly-released Firefox China Edition in a cultural context:

I'm used to a very search-based culture, and was shocked to discover that search - while still important - was a secondary task for all of my Chinese colleagues. Their normal pattern would be to first visit an authoritative source (a portal of some form, either a media hub, a news site, or a topic-oriented site like one for music) and then drill into the information presented. For example, if I'm interested in going to the movies, I would search for "showtimes toronto" and then navigate from there. My colleagues, on the other hand, would more likely navigate to a place where they knew they could find reliable data, follow links to showtimes, and only then perhaps invoke search on the individual movies to find out more about them.

Beltzner goes on to say that “the ways in which people like to interact with that information is likely to be heavily influenced by their cultural contexts”, implying that there’s something about Chinese culture that promotes a browsing-based approach rather than a search-based one. As a result, Firefox China Edition takes on some new features to make it more amenable to browsing.

At the risk of sounding culturally insensitive, I’d like to play the devil’s advocate here. The browsing, drill-down approach that Beltzner describes above actually sounds like the way I used the internet ten years ago. Or, in the context of Silicon Valley, it’s about the Yahoo world-view vs. the Google world-view.

Over the past decade, Google has done a lot to “convert” me to using search rather than browsing and drilling-down; one of the best examples has been Gmail, where they transformed a traditionally hierarchical and sorting-based paradigm into a search-based one, thereby making it much easier for me to find the information I’m looking for. So I guess that a part of me wonders if this isn’t so much “cultural” as it is the case that the “search meme” hasn’t arrived in China yet. If that’s the case, then it’s possible that promoting the use of search could be useful in gaining early adopters.

At the same time, I’m not saying that browsing or drilling-down is useless outside of Chinese culture, either: to that extent, the Chinese edition has some really awesome features that would be useful to me personally, such as the built-in Juice addon (which has some functionality that we’d like to get into Ubiquity).

I could be totally off-base here—if I am, I’m very interested in finding out what it is about Chinese culture that results in different browsing habits. And regardless, the Chinese edition is definitely a very interesting experiment.

© Atul Varma 2020