Raise your hand if:

  • Bookmarks are less important to your web use in 2009 than they were in 1999
  • Trying to find one bookmark in your bookmark menu is like looking for a needle in a pile of a thousand needles
  • You do searches for pages you know you have bookmarked, because using Google is easier than hunting through your bookmark menu.
  • You create about ten bookmarks for each one you come back to later.
  • You know you could make your bookmark menu more manageable with tags and folders… but it’s so much work that you never get around to doing it.

Bookmarking was a great feature back in the days of the first web browsers, but on the modern Web it feels a bit creaky. Maybe bookmarks are no longer doing their job as well as they could be.

Before we can figure out how bookmarks could do their job better, maybe we need to figure out what their job is. When you tell your browser to bookmark a page, what is the meaning of that action? What do you really want out of it?

Based on a lot of informal discussion, and observation of my own and others’ web use, I think there are at least four different things that we want when we bookmark a page. My working hypothesis is that bookmarks are one feature trying to do the work of four features — and not doing any of them very well.

The four categories I’ve observed are:

  1. The Todo List. “I want to look at this, but not right now.” Someone gave me a link to a cool video about robots, but I don’t want to watch it right now, because I’m in the middle of something. Or, there’s a web form I need to fill out, but I don’t have the information I need yet. I bookmark the page because there’s an action I want to take later.
  2. Sharing. “Oh man, this is funny!” This time, I found the cool robot video, and I want to show it to someone. I found a hilarious picture, or a news article that proves I was right in that argument we had a week ago. Either way, the value is in the sharing. I bookmark it so that later on I can give the link to others.
  3. Frequently Used. “I want to get back here fast.” The page where I view my bank account status, the central documentation page for the project I’m working on, or a hub from which I often start surfing. I bookmark it because I expect to return often and I want to get there fast.
  4. The Research Collection. “This fits right in to something I’m working on.” I’m a history teacher, preparing a lesson plan, and I’m collecting resources about World War 1. Or, I’m a political blogger, and I’m collecting links about all the ways my Least Favorite Politician has screwed things up. I bookmark pages because I want to add them to my growing collection of data on a certain topic.

Those are the use-cases I see. (Am I overlooking others?) Let’s examine each use-case and see how bookmarks measure up against other ways of accomplishing the same thing.

  1. The Todo List: Bookmarks make a poor todo list, because they provide no visible reminder that there’s something I wanted to do. And there’s no way, by looking through the bookmark menu, to tell which things I’ve read and which I haven’t. I’ve completely switched over to using tabs as my todo list. If there’s something I need to do on a page that I can’t do right now, I’ll leave the page open in a tab (serving as a visible reminder) until I get around to it. Others install a specialized extension like Read It Later to fill this need.
  2. Sharing: When I want to share something, I want to share it, not bookmark it. If possible, I’d rather share it immediately, so that I can then forget about it and free up my mental space. Thus, the popularity of extensions like Shareaholic, that add UI to the browser for sharing links in fewer steps.
  3. Frequently Used: For getting back to my frequently used sites, fast, nothing beats the Awesomebar interface. A few keystrokes, matched to the title or url, almost always get me to the page faster than the bookmark menu could. (Putting bookmarks in the quick-link bar can be a decent alternative, but it requires a lot of gardening work on the part of the user; the awesomebar learns your favorite sites on its own.)
  4. The Research Collection:
    If you’re disciplined about tagging each bookmark, so you know which ones go with which topics, then bookmarks can be a good way to collect your research. But you know what’s even better? A shared research collection. Like, which lets you not only build and tag your research collection, but share it and access it from anywhere.

Are bookmarks obsolete?

Are there other bookmark use-cases I’m forgetting? Is there an add-on that you’ve found to be a good bookmark replacement for a certain purpose? How would bookmarks have to evolve to make them more useful than the alternatives?

If the bookmark menu disappeared tomorrow, what would you miss?