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Search Soirees
by Marydee Ojala, Editor

I 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.

Marydee OjalaMarydee Ojala ( is editor of ONLINE and has been searching ABI/INFORM since 1976. 

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