How Do You Get to Facebook?

This blew me away; Hitwise reported that “facebook” was the top search term across the three major search engines (Google, Yahoo, and Bing) in March 2010.

Dig deeper and you’ll find that some variant of “facebook” accounted for eight of the 30 total spots.

Data collected by Hitwise

I guess I shouldn’t be surprised, since we saw glaring evidence of this usage pattern with the whole ReadWriteWeb-facebook login fiasco.

I want to know why. Why do people use search over the location bar or bookmarks?

My main reason is that I want to understand the pattern as a designer. As Facebook nears 500 million users, it is perhaps the best benchmark for how the average intertubes user interacts with a web app, including how s/he navigates to the app.

So, I think I understand the usage vectors here. The user opens a browser and is presented with search on the home page, which probably is the default one set by the browser vendor.

Search is a window to the interwebs and has been since the days of America Online. Flashback for a second: remember when media outlets would tell you the AOL keyword their online presences?

This is why search is such a valuable property, one that Microsoft refused to concede to Google, despite a decade of futility. This is why they dumped tens of millions into Bing.

Anyway, I understand why this is the prevailing behavior. Back in the early days, there was no directory for all the domains out there, and mistyping a letter could take you somewhere scary.

Flashback again: remember ESPN’s original domain,, I think it was? Not very intuitive to the brand and a doozy to type.

Search engines made it easier to find what you wanted. Notice I say easier, not easy.

By now, searching for any and everything is learned behavior, and it works. Technology is hard, just give me my Facebook.

If you’re designing a browser, what can you do to take back the navigation element that is, well, your primary function?

Enhancements might work. The search bar box is nice, but how many people use it vs. their home page?

The Firefox 3 Awesome Bar, which is even stronger in Chrome, is fantastic, but we’ve already determined that users don’t touch the location bar.

What about bookmarks/favorites?

From my experience with average interwebs users, the location bar is scary, whereas a search engine is not. They don’t even know what a browser is.

So, is this a design problem for the browser, or is it a usage problem by users?

Tough to call. Maybe someone needs to build a super fast, slim browser that has no features.

Find the comments, interested to hear your perspectives.




  1. Easy answer for browser developers is “Get rid of the internet home page”. When you open up, you get a browser page with icons for your “desktop” of bookmarks or recently/frequently visited pages. Chrome does this well (ironic given that this is the browser from the people who practically own the home page).

    Personally, I got so fed up of my wife 'navigating' to our online banking site via Google search, I put in a desktop icon with the bank's logo on it that fires up the browser directly to that url.

    PS I found it interesting that people searched for Google (andYahoo) on Bing (and for Yahoo on Google).

  2. When I first saw the results, I wondered if the “facebook login” searches were artifically inflated by the whole ReadWriteWeb fiasco, but then I realized that this event occurred in February, outside of the four week range reported by Hitwise.

    Clearly this has some software design implications, and not just for casual computer users either. I know that I've visited websites in the past, and I've been frustrated because the website didn't have a search box. “I don't want to learn how to navigate your site – just get me the information I want now!” From that perspective, use of a search box is not only easier, but it is also quicker.

    You make an excellent point regarding search as learned behavior. I would think of search as intuitive (going back to your AOL keyword example), but in reality this is a behavior that I had to learn, just like I had to learn how to move a mouse, and how the “enter” key or the “return” key or the key with the loopy arrow works.

    (Ironically, Facebook itself is abysmal in allowing you to search the content of your own feed. Earlier today I needed to find a link that I had posted to my wall over a month ago. The only thing that I remembered about the link was that one of my Facebook friends, Bill, had commented on it. Unfortunately, I could not find a way to search my feed for comments from Bill, and my feed is noisy enough that I would have to go through a couple of dozen screens to find the comment manually. I solved the problem by going to Bill's feed; luckily for me, he's not as verbose as I am.)

  3. The “browser page with icons for your 'desktop' of bookmarks or recently/frequently visited pages” may be the answer. In many cases, people only visit a limited number of websites (the bank, Farmville, ESPN, etc.), so this might be a good default screen. Unfortunately, such a default screen does not serve the needs of the browser vendor, who would prefer that you visit the browser website (or perhaps a partner website such as

  4. Safari will show me a gallery of sites I visit most often. (exactly what Gary is describing in the comment above). I can also pin pages here (so it is always there, even if I have not visited recently). One issue with this is that if I open my browser when I am talking to someone, they have a nice little glimpse into my universe. [not a deal breaker, just something to be aware of 🙂 ].

    May be they should open with a default set of common pages (such as facebook??)

    Overall, I think search dominates because it is more forgiving, more flexible. If you want people to use the URL bar, then make it forgiving of our human frailties, our types our flawed memories. There is no such thing as ? Ask me if I meant Till them, I the user am going with the searchbox. ofcourse, fusebook is probably spoken for and has a thriving website based on the very fact that I might make a typo – so I don't actually know how you will make the URL bar work this way.

    typing natural language into a text box, scanning links and picking the best one, beats the other option where you can type goobledegook into a text box and may either get to the page directly OR you may get to a place that you never really intended to go to and now have no other options.

    (all that said, these numbers are astounding and tell an amazing story)

  5. Yeah, that Safari and Chrome feature is useful, but a) you have to set a preference to see it and b) let's be honest, IE is the main browser for these searchers.

    I like the shortcut solution, but again, *we* know how to use a browser. These people either don't or don't care.

    I also thought the other search terms were illuminating, especially searching Google for “gmail” or Yahoo for “yahoo mail”.

    I think there's a fundamental design problem here. Maybe we can fix it by designing for “not us”?

  6. Ha, no one visits Farmville outside Facebook.

    If the browser vendor is MSFT or Google, they do benefit from visits to their content sites. Maybe Apple too, but that's debatable.

    I think there's a fundamental design flaw with the browser that is exposed by average users.

  7. Excellent point, search is much more forgiving than the location bar.

    I think the answer here becomes removing features from the browser and pushing the user to whatever search engine. Google for Chrome, Bing for IE and whatever Apple and Mozilla want to push.

    It's amazing how big search is. I expect Facebook to push into that market with social search, but as I've said in the past, they are unbelievable bad at people search, which boggles the mind.

  8. Search is definitely easier and should be faster. There's a fundamental design problem here that browser makers should realize. Make it fast, don't add features, take them away and point to search by default and don't allow the user to change that.

    You're right about Facebook search. It's horrendous. As I've posted in the past, they really *should* be better at people search, at the very least. They will need to fix that if they hope to be the new intertubes.

  9. Don't know if it's relevant, but the default for the browser icon in my phone (verizon lg touch) seems to be search. At first I found that very annoying, but haven't really used it enough to change it. Maybe all those searches are just people getting to facebook with their phones, do the biggies pay the telcos to default like that? Or maybe I just hit the wrong keys.

  10. Interesting. I dunno. Since these are US data, I assume it's aggregated and therefore, mostly non-mobile. Along the lines you're thinking, Microsoft would have incentive to drive traffic to Facebook, so perhaps they're showing preference somewhere, making it easier.

  11. Interesting. I dunno. Since these are US data, I assume it's aggregated and therefore, mostly non-mobile. Along the lines you're thinking, Microsoft would have incentive to drive traffic to Facebook, so perhaps they're showing preference somewhere, making it easier.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.