Search engines are getting more accurate and advances in SEO and behavioural targeting mean that usually we find the things we’re looking for online. What’s not to like?
But what if we’re missing out on content that we didn’t even know we wanted? It’s all about serendipity - that wonderful word for the happy accident of chancing upon something we weren’t looking for.
It’s an elusive quality, but one we’re all accustomed to in print media."Magazines have always created content environments where their readers discover new things…" writes Anthony Wing Kosner at forbes.com. "This serendipity of discovery is key to the pleasure of magazine reading."
Magazines on iPads combine some of the traditional qualities of print with the advantages of digital media.
All the text is there to read but interactive elements such as audio, video, animation and interactive graphics add to the magazine experience, and hyperlinks mean that there's no barrier or delay between the magazine page and additional material online.
Facebook, Twitter and email buttons allow the reader to share their accidental discoveries with friends and contacts. This flexibility means that a tablet magazine can offer as much serendipity as the reader wants.
David Graham, head of digital strategy at Havas Media, sums up the benefits: "iPad mags… should offer depth, be interactive and immersive in a way that can be taken full advantage of by those who want, but which doesn’t detract from the more traditional magazine experience if that’s all other readers care for… some people like what they know while others are open to new experiences.
"The challenge for publishers and content owners is to solve for both while still providing a worthwhile and meaningful experience for everyone."
But "discoveries… of things which they were not in quest of" (as Horace Walpole, who first coined the term serendipity in 1754, defined it) can become factored out online where content is increasingly targeted at an individual’s perceived tastes and needs. "It requires a kind of planned vagueness. Digital systems don’t do vagueness very well," says advertising consultant Ian Leslie.
Pete Marcus at The Media Blog worries that increasingly accurate searches mean that we find what we want, not necessarily what we need: "I fear the obsession with relevance means we’ll only read articles that reinforce our existing prejudices."
Digital providers have begun to realise that delivering perfectly accurate search results can be less than satisfying, and so have evolved apps and websites with built-in serendipity. Wikipedia offers a random article button; Amazon famously tempts readers to buy more books based on previous purchases ('Customers who bought this item also bought').
Websites and apps such as StumbleUpon, Zite, my6sense, Flipboard and Genieo all, in different ways, attempt to offer up material they feel we should see - even if we don’t know it yet. Even Google’s CEO Eric Schmidt says of his ubiquitous product: "Think of it as a serendipity engine."
At Forward, editors and art directors, rather than algorithms, choose copy and images that we hope will both surprise and inform our readers.
Our work for Tesco Baby and Toddler Club is a very specifically segmented on and offline CRM programme for new and expectant mothers and necessarily focuses on this very specific subject, whereas for the Patek Philippe magazine our approach can be more lateral.
We curate as well as create content for our exclusive readership and try to ensure that they experience a satisfying degree of serendipity.
The latest issue features an eclectic mix of subjects including the 19th-century astronomical illustrator Étienne Léopold Trouvelot, James Bond production designer Sir Ken Adam and the private "Library of the History of Human Imagination" of digital entrepreneur Jay Walker who, incidentally, arranges his books by size rather than subject, making for neatly uniform shelves and serendipitous juxtapositions.
Of course it’s a delicate balance to deliver the right mix of relevant and more unexpected content. Both on and offline we all need an editor (whether virtual or human) to curate, aggregate and filter the vast mass of potential subject matter, and recommend a menu that might appeal to us.
We’re inevitably too close to our own interests to know what we really want but we can still be just as demanding as, for example, Steve Jobs. His recent biography describes the notoriously volatile Apple CEO’s clash with copywriter James Vincent over his first attempt at an iPad commercial.
When Vincent shouted, "You’ve got to tell me what you want," Jobs shot back, "You’ve got to show me some stuff, and I’ll know it when I see it."