Google's HG Wells doodles and the return of Web serendipity


Anyone else notice a lot of the unexpected going around the Web these days?

The recent three week-long Google "doodle" saga – resolved early this morning when it was revealed that a series of UFO-themed Google homepage images were to commemorate the 143rd birthday of English science-fiction author HG Wells – is part of a resurgence of serendipity online. It's as if the Web giant and others, tired of striving to give users exactly what they were looking for, decided it might be nice to say, "Here's something you definitely weren't looking for, but which we think you'll think is cool."

The cryptic Wells tribute was given top billing on perhaps the largest marquee on the Web – the Google homepage. Another, more deliberate Google foray into the art of the unexpected came last week, with the introduction of "Google Fast Flip," a cooperative between the search company and 36 newspapers and magazines (including the Monitor) that aims to give online readers a more print-like experience browsing news on the Web. Snapshots of pages present the reader multiple sources from which to read about a topic, and "popular," "recent," and "recommended" sections are jumping-off points for unexpected content.

Google gave watercooler-worthy fare another boost with the recent introduction of a "Spotlight" section on its Google News page. Billed as a repository for "investigative journalism, opinion pieces, special-interest articles, and other stories of enduring appeal," the section shines a light on topics that might not be top of the day's news, but which are considered "a good read." In other words, it's stuff you might not know you want to read, but when given a chance, doesn't disappoint.

But Google isn't the only one betting on the appeal of the unexpected. When Microsoft launched Bing in late May, it trumpeted the search decision engine's interactive, changing homepage image. The often striking visual invites users to click around, exploring an engaging scene that likely has little to do with why they came to the site.

Of course, this "return" to serendipity is no such thing to users of StumbleUpon. Bought by eBay in 2007 but spun off in April, the site and browser add-on invite curious surfers to get lost in the Web, visiting to unfamiliar (but user-recommended) corners of it for exploration's sake.

The difference between StumbleUpon and the Google and Microsoft efforts is the intent. Sure, a crazy site found through StumbleUpon may be really cool and unexpected, but users seek that stuff out when they log on – using it's a bit like picking up a copy of Weekly World News at the check-out. By consciously curating the curious – and presenting it front and center – Microsoft and Google are providing the same news and search services as usual, but enriched with a little bit of, well, serendipity – and we're all for it.

The Kepler mission: A 60-second primer

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