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ONLINE SEARCHER: Information Discovery, Technology, Strategies

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Devils, Details, and Delights
Volume 41, Number 4 - July/August 2017

“THE DEVIL IS IN THE DETAILS.” How many times have you heard that? How about too many to count? When it comes to online searching, details do matter. They matter a great deal. Details determine whether search results delight you or not.

Take the simple difference between a Boolean AND and a Boolean OR command. It’s a detail well understood by information professionals that frequently goes over the heads of the general public and novice website designers. One website’s search started off with an implicit OR. Enter two words, say online searcher, and you retrieved anything with either online or searcher in the text. Enclose the words in parentheses to force a phrase search and the system ignored it. Complaints came in, and the site changed its default to an automatic phrase search. That turned out to be too restrictive—a search for two words doesn’t always mean an exact phrase.

While the library and information community decries the emergence of fake news and falsified research data—as well it should—we also need to be very careful about checking our own work. Did we get the details right? Rumors about the airport closing because of extreme heat were rife at the SLA annual conference in Phoenix. Checking with airline websites and the airport itself quickly revealed that some flights, on regional jets, were canceled but the airport remained open. As information professionals, shouldn’t we fact-check before perpetuating false information?

It’s not always easy to tell when information is suspect. Our own biases may lead us astray. If you “know” how a search engine worked last year and continue to search based on that “knowledge,” you might not be getting the best results—search features and functionality change. If you “know” a particular resource won’t have the information you’re looking for, that “knowledge” could easily lead to incomplete or incorrect answers. Repetition fosters the belief that what is being stated is true. Because it plays to emotion, it’s hard to refute with facts.

Information professionals are biased toward believing that the more information they gather, the better. This isn’t necessarily true. Many decision makers want smaller bits of information. Presentation styles can also bias perception of the information. How charts and graphs are drawn alter conclusions about the underlying data.

Bias can also occur based on fields of study. Cross-disciplinary teams are effective at overcoming this. Put a physicist, a chemist, and a social scientist to work on a problem, and their solution is likely to be superior to that of any of them working alone. Information professionals should reach out to non-information specialists for additional insights into devilish research projects and bias reduction.

Some bias is good. When we know the details of how our clients want to see results—some want abstracts, others full text or summaries, raw numbers or analyzed numbers, search strategies spelled out, sources consulted—then we can delight them. Embrace your detail devil for delightful online searching.

Marydee Ojala is Editor-in-Chief of Online Searcher (the successor journal to ONLINE) and writes its business research column ("The Dollar Sign"). She contributes feature articles and news stories to Information TodayEContentComputers in LibrariesIntranetsCyberSkeptic's Guide to the InternetBusiness Information Review, and Information Today's NewsBreaks. A long-time observer of the information industry, she speaks frequently at conferences, such as WebSearch University, Internet Librarian, Online Information (London, UK), Internet Librarian International, and national library meetings outside the U.S. She has adjunct faculty status at the School of Library and Information Science at IUPUI (Indiana University Purdue University Indianapolis). Her professional career began at BankAmerica Corporation, San Francisco, directing a worldwide program of research and information services. She established her independent information research business in 1987. Her undergraduate degree is from Brown University and her MLS was earned at the University of Pittsburgh.


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