It is easy to think that online search consists of entering keywords on Bing or Google web pages followed by hitting the “search” button. In reality, there is a lot of search that takes place in the mind of the searcher. Part of the information behaviour, better called human information behaviour (HIB), searching plays at multiple levels: cognitive, emotional and situational. Psychology has a great role in the information behaviour. The design of information system user interface has only recently started to take into consideration the human aspects of searching and the fact that seeking information is far from being a linear process limited to the use of sequential keywords.

The quality of search is perceived as the degree in which the search engine responds to the explicit query, but this is not that simple. The user doesn’t always know which keywords to use for searching. Very often the user wants to broaden the search scope, delegate control and navigate through responses offered by the search engine to discover new information. This is a learning journey that many users prefer when the problem is not clearly defined in their mind and they feel the need to know more before they actually decide where to focus their information search moving forward.

The opposite of direct response, which is an area where traditional engines have tried to excel, is a situation where the search tends to broaden rather than focus. This divergent search is most appropriate for creative situations when users acquire new information outside their domain of expertise. Convergent search focuses on what the user knows, while the divergent search is about discovering new things, and adopt a multi-disciplinarian attitude.

Facebook is clearly in the camp of divergent search despite the obvious lack of search capabilities. In fact FB friends find a lot of information on Facebook, but not by way of convergent search and by seeking specific information. On Facebook users encounter information. With each visit, through sharing information is presented to the user in the Newsfeed in form of links and commentaries. This is not an accidental feature. This year Mark Zuckerberg announce the addition of a new and powerful feature called serendipity. It may seem innocent, but this feature is very powerful because it brings friends closer and because it has a subtle attraction that keeps users coming back to the web site. And of course, it is a key element in the Mark’s strategy to gather as much information about our habits and wants.

Of the two ways of finding information, search and encounter, the latter is one that requires the least amount of effort on behalf of the user. Couple that with the element of surprise and reward that comes in form of viewing a funny video, learning something interesting, listening to a great song or reading a captivating article, when none of this could have cross your mind without at least putting in some effort, and you get hooked. Serendipity is one of the most powerful ways of finding information you did not know you needed or wanted.

The job of search engines is difficult because it requires the user to think and make an effort to research their own information need. It is like work. That is Google and Bing. Facebook on the other hand is strong on serendipity which is fun and enjoyable and very, very social. Not only you find information, but you get to leave comments, “like” and be “liked”. On search engines, no one likes you.