Knowledge Center

Searching vs. Browsing in your Document Management System


For any organization, the ability to correctly locate and identify relevant information is a crucial requirement of all software systems. This is especially critical for document-intensive organizations such as law firms and corporate legal departments. The proper document management system should allow you to quickly and easily find the relevant content. Searching and browsing are the two mechanisms used to find and identify content. Users generally gravitate toward one approach or the other. Personal preferences are strong. And this is the yin and yang of DM. Can an organization satisfy all users with these opposing approaches?


Early iterations of DM systems tended to provide limited search functions based on form-based search. Reliance upon profiled metadata requires that a user have precise knowledge of such attributes as document types, authors, matters or projects. Users found the effort excessive to find the exact content they sought.

Full text searching changed the dynamics completely. This has always been the mainstay of Lexis, Westlaw and other legal search engines. DM systems have caught up with this approach and users rely heavily upon it. However, full text searching can also lead to misleading results. And the user is challenged to dive into the individual document text to determine relevance.


As Windows folders and internet content browsing have become commonplace, users are most comfortable when they can see the overall structure of a given project. As such, browsing presents an alternative to searching for navigating content and information. Software systems that utilize the browsing feature depend on an intuitive tree hierarchy approach to document management. Modern repository browsing often allows internal users to perform tasks such as viewing file and folder history or creating unique branches and tags to properly categorize documents. Many DM systems offer browsing via a virtual client file.

But browsing has its drawbacks. One disadvantage of browsing is that placing a document in an extensive folder structure can be time-consuming. The browsing method works best on a relatively small amount of documents, as tree structures can become unwieldy and thus difficult to navigate. This process may seem reminiscent of legacy operating systems or other software folders on a file system, where it can be time-consuming to manage, update, alter and move source documents.


Establishing a DM system which combines searching and browsing is the most effective way to find and present content to users. Which approach to promote, and how to set up the system to anticipate the way in which users most effectively interact with documents is as much art as science. Properly understanding the basics of both search and browse software options is essential for any organization. There are likely situations and scenarios where one system will offer an advantage over the other. EIM International can help navigate the functional nuances of Information System software and help determine whether search or browse capabilities are most relevant to your organization's needs.

Article Sources:

1. Mayr, Heinrich and Witold, Abramowicz. Technologies for Business Information Systems (Dordrecht: Springer 2007). 

2. “Your Best, and Last, Content Management Software”. 2017.

3. "Browsing Subversion Repository”. JetBrains. March 5, 2018.