We all know the difference between "searching" and "browsing." When we search, we're looking for something pretty specific. Maybe not an exact item, book, movie, shoe, etc., but something within a specific set of boundaries. Browsing is more... serendipitous. You go into a store -- let's say... a book store, shall we? -- and you wander around, picking up stuff that catches your eye... moving somewhat aimlessly... following a trail or two or not.
It's fun. And we find unexpected things this way. In many cases, though, the freedom we feel due to the unspecific nature of our quest is somewhat illusionary. Whomever is creating the space in which you browse has had a lot to do with what you find and how. "Staff Recommends" shelves, end-caps, bargain tables, posters, positioning... all these things combine to guide your browsing experience. Of course you still are in control; that's not the point. But neither are you randomly choosing from among an infinite number of materials in a random, uniform vacuum.
I'll give you an example. For a couple months, a couple years ago, I ended up buying a number of books that all had only one major thing in common: they all had bright, almost neon green covers. This was a fashion in cover design at the time, and after reading one that was good, I somehow was attracted to that color. And while the books in question weren't related... neither were they entirely dissimilar. Only certain kinds of authors and stories will be comfortable with a cover the color of radioactive lime.
Online, browsing is both more unfettered -- you can follow links from page to page and site to site very easily -- and less free. You can't jump as easily, let's say, from a page about sketching to one that has blank sketchbooks, unless the link is built in. In a live store environment, there is a greater chance for serendipity, because the "links" only have to be provided by physical proximity.
So... how to build interesting, serendipitous browsing experiences online? One way is to create a set of materials that don't, on the surface, have anything in common... like my electric green books (though, I guess, they only had something on the surface in common).
For example, the American Book Review recently created an awesome list of the "100 Best First Lines from Novels." They're all novels, yes... and many of them would probably make a list of "best novels" in general. But it's very interesting to move from book-to-book based on a criteria like "best first lines." You don't browse the same way as you do when you go by subject, author, time period, etc.
It's a way to induce directional browsing... an opportunity for planned serendipity.
I liked this particular list so much, I added it as a WorldCat.org list:
Fun stuff. Happy browsing.