By Marydee Ojala Editor
am constantly struck by the difference between what people can do with
search engines and what they actually do. It boils down to this: advanced search
engine features go largely unused. It is the age not only of the one word search
(regardless of the number of concepts envisioned), but also of the non-usage
of helping features. Want a picture of something? Wouldn't you use the image-searching
features of Google or AltaVista? As information professionals, of course. But
how many in the general populace understand either how to do this or when to
do this. So they don't do it. They use the main search box of a general search
engine, then they complain
that it doesn't work. It didn't give them a picture.
Search engines measure their success on popularity. The more people who access
the engine the better. It's market share that determines future direction rather
than advanced searching capabilities. The advanced features are not a draw
for the general public; only for the information professional. We are the ones
who care about field searching, about how to use a search engine to learn what
sites link to a site, and about how to ascertain the date a crawler actually
visits a site. We are the ones who worry about how the engines really work.
We deconstruct the engines. We can tell the difference between an advertisement
and an information site. We understand what the search engines really mean
when they tout their size, freshness, or relevancy.
Traditional search engines were designed for information professionals; Web
engines for shopping. Search engines are optimized for ecommerce, not research.
If we want to know business statistics for the furniture industry, it doesn't
mean we're in the market for a new chair. If we want to know average gasoline
prices over the last few decades, we don't really need to be told where the
closest petrol station is.
Satisfaction does not equal quality data. If end-users say they're satisfied,
information professionals should probe that statement and see if the satisfaction
is justified. My real fear is that search engines will notice, as I'm sure
they have, that only some 3-5% of users activate advanced search features.
What company in its right mind would expend research monies on improving features
that already have a small audience? Small, but influential, I should add. And
it is that influence that we as information professionals need to exercise.
What influence do we have with search engines? More than we think. We are
the ones the public turns to when they need advice on Web searching. We advise
end-users on Web sites, online information sources, and search engines. We
spread our online knowledge through a multitude of discussion lists. We speak
at conferences. We write. We must contact the search engines, and stay in contact
with them, urging them to both keep and improve their advanced search features
so that the Net remains viable for professional researchers.
Ojala [firstname.lastname@example.org] is
the editor of ONLINE. Comments? E-mail letters
to the editor to email@example.com.