Searching on the Right Side of the Brain

Are you a left or right brain searcher? Your brain dominance may play a major role in your success in finding what you're looking for on the web.

If you're a left brain searcher, you're probably already having good luck. But if you're a right brain searcher, your familiar search engines and web directories may actually be hindering your results.

How do you know your brain dominance? Answer this simple question: If you're going somewhere new and unfamiliar, would you prefer to look at a map, or ask someone for directions?

People with left brain dominance would likely ask for directions, whereas right brain dominant folks would want to look at a map. These aren't hard and fast distinctions, and one dominance isn't better than another. Brain dominance simply tells us something about the kinds of tools that will give us the best results based on our own thinking preferences.

Search engines are inherently left brain tools. Left brain thinking processes are analytical, logical, fact-based, quantitative. Search engines take query words and analyze them, apply logic, seek documents that provide facts, and return thousands or millions of results.

Right brain thinking processes tend to be visual, intuitive, holistic, and integrative. The right brain excels at processing large amounts of unconnected information and instantly distilling meaning from it. Think how much faster it is to look at a map than to get detailed, spoken directions. It's a cliche, but very true, that a picture is worth a thousand words.

But search engines and web directories can't take pictures as queries -- yet. What they can do, however, is display their contents or results in a visual format that appeals to the right brain.

Over the next few months, I'll be reviewing a number of visual search sites and tools. Some are available and ready to use now; others are research projects that offer tantalizing glimpses of what we can expect in the future.

Two visual search tools that are freely available on the web today are and Both take the data from the Open Directory Project (ODP) and build visual a visual interface for it. But that's where the similarity between the two ends. is a demonstration project from, a Canadian company that offers enterprise search products for intranets and extranets. shows ODP categories as "regions" of a map of Antarctica. Clicking a region zooms you in to a category, and within a category you see web sites represented by circles.

The neat thing is that the map shows much more than sites and their "geographic" (conceptual) relationship to one another. The size of a category box, for example, indicates the number of subcategories and sites it contains. A bigger box means more content.

Similarly, the size of the circles indicating a web site give visual cues to how many pages the site contains, the number of inbound links to the site (its popularity), and the number of outbound links it contains. Lots of outbound links means the site is probably a directory of some sort.

You can take in all this information with a quick glance, whereas with a search engine you'd have to spend some time digging around or thinking about the results to draw the same inferences.

Like, is a public demonstration of software offered by TheBrain Technologies Corp. that uses Open Directory Data. WebBrain uses ODP categories to create an "association" map -- a topic map with lines explicitly showing the relationships between categories and subcategories.

Clicking a category causes the map to instantly rearrange itself, revealing subcategories and their particular associations with one another. Mousing over some categories will also highlight cross-referenced categories within the directory.

Below this map are the traditional text-based annotated directory listings from the ODP. Portraying results in this fashion actually offers something for both sides of the brain. The association map provides the "big picture" for the right brain, and annotated site listings appeal to the logical, analytical left brain.

In addition to offering a visual interface to the ODP, both and are keyword searchable.

Searching on the right side of the brain is easy with tools like and Watch upcoming issues of SearchDay for reviews of other innovative visual search engines. also offers two other interesting demonstrations of their Visual Net software:

Canada-VC Deal Map
Explore the world of Canadian venture capital with this map that shows investment details mapped by industry type.

PubMed Map
PubMed, a service of the National Library of Medicine, provides access to over 11 million citations from MEDLINE and additional life science journals. This visual map is a great example of how information contained in a classic Invisible Web database can be made visible.

Theories of Brain Organisation˜caveman/Creative/Brain/herrmann.htm
A good overview of brain dominance and how it affects our thinking processes.

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About the author

Chris Sherman is a frequent contributor to several information industry journals. He's written several books, including The McGraw-Hill CD ROM Handbook and The Invisible Web: Uncovering Information Sources Search Engines Can't See, co-authored with Gary Price. Chris has written about search and search engines since 1994, when he developed online searching tutorials for several clients. From 1998 to 2001, he was's Web Search Guide.