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Magazines > ONLINE > March/April 2012
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Online Magazine

Vol. 36 No. 2 — Mar./Apr. 2012

On the Net
Advanced Search in Retreat
by Greg R. Notess, Montana State University

What is your favorite style for a search page? Many librarians like to default to an advanced search page that shows a variety of limits, field searches, boxes for constructing Boolean search statements, and unique features of the search system. Other searchers tend to prefer a simplistic, single search box that does not require much thought before entering a search query. When given a choice, the majority of searchers lean toward a single search box without options. Google reports that only a small minority of searches come from its advanced search page.

Basic search and advanced search are terms that have, in general, come to represent certain types of search interfaces. To generalize, basic search is typically a single box, while advanced search is a longer page with a variety of boxes, limits, and other search options. While advanced search form users are in the minority, there has been a long tradition of having a small link to advanced search capabilities somewhere near that single search box on a basic search page—at least until recently.

Google’s many databases and frequent user interface changes show a variety of approaches to advanced searching. Google often leads the way in search design. Since others copy later, Google’s current advanced search experiments may be a harbinger of search design to come at many other sites.

GOOGLE'S ADVANCED SEARCHES

Google has been making many interface changes over the past few months, and advanced search has been bounced around to various locations. For years, the advanced search link had been near the main search box. With design changes in 2011, the direct link to the advanced search was moved to be a drop-down choice when clicking the gear icon () for options in the upper right-hand corner. Many of Google’s databases have separate advanced searches. Not all are linked in the same way.

With Google’s latest homepage redesign, which replaces the black bar at the top of the page with a new Google bar that drops down from the logo, the gear options icon is gone, and no link to advanced search exists on the homepage. The new look is very slowly being rolled out to users, so it could yet change and revert to the advanced search and options links. Even if it does not, the advanced search is still available after running a search. On the search results page, it is in two spots—at the bottom of the search results and in the new gear icon location near the upper right. In its other databases, Google is also experimenting with alternative options for advanced searching.

GOOGLE’S OTHER DATABASES

At this point, several Google databases—Images, Videos, Books, and Blogs—still have advanced search accessible from the gear drop-down options. Typically, these databases also provide a link at the bottom of the search results page. Meanwhile, Google Shopping, Groups, Patents, and Scholar still have the older-style homepage with an advanced search link just to the right of the search box. However, on the results pages, Shopping and Patents look more like the other databases with advanced search available at the bottom of the page and from the drop-down gear icon.

Groups and Scholar retain the advanced search link to the right of the search box. Each of these advanced searches has different capabilities, with specialized limits appropriate to the database, such as Color and Image size for Images and Duration and Subtitles for Videos. The one exception is Blogs, which uses the regular web advanced search.

With the general interface changes, advanced search links have been changing as well. One day, the Videos advanced search is available from the gear icon, and the next day it is not. In late November 2011, Google experimented with a completely different web advanced search that lasted for several days and then reverted to the former version. It removed the link and related search options, redesigned the whole page, and used drop-down menus that were not accessible to all browsers. In addition, users were no longer able to see the actual advanced syntax (displayed in the box at the top) that resulted from advanced search choices. See http://bit.ly/gadvsearch for more details of what it looked like and how it worked—or failed to work.

In the past, Google would display a new interface to a small fraction of its users, evaluate the usage, and improve the design before launching a new version. With the November 2011 advanced search remodel, the new interface was made available to all (or at least most searchers), but then withdrawn. With the removal of a visual link to the advanced search from the homepage, the continued shifting of locations for this search, and attempts at redesign that were rolled back, it has made it more difficult to rely on having access to advanced search features.

POST-SEARCH vs. PRE-SEARCH

One impetus for change has been the addition of post-search limit options. Rather than choosing appropriate limits pre-search from an advanced search page, searchers can choose limits post-search using search tools on the left-hand side of the page. The post-processing approach first appeared on Google a few years ago with the introduction of left-hand search facets. Some advanced functions are available only in these post-search limits, while others are on the advanced search page. For example, File type and Region limits are available on the advanced search page but not in the search tools. The Sites with images, Custom date range, and Nearby limits are in the search tools but not in the advanced search. Reading level is in both locations.

Similar differences appear in the other databases. The left-hand search tools for Google Images have a By subject and Past week limit that is not available on the advanced search page. Meanwhile the Usage rights, Aspect ratio, and File type limits are only on the advanced search page and not in the search tools. Color, Image type, and Size are available in both. The options for Video are similar between the search tools and the advanced search. The Books advanced search has field searches for Author, Title, Language, Publisher, Subject, ISBN, and ISSN that are not in the search tools.

Seeing an initial results set can help a searcher determine which limits might improve results. On the other hand, some searchers prefer an advanced search page approach because they know from the beginning what search limits they want. In addition, an advanced search page can include far more options.

A NEW APPROACH FROM GOOGLE NEWS

One potential future for Google’s advanced searching is now live at Google News. Instead of a separate link labeled advanced search, searchers should look for the small downward-pointing triangle in the search box (). You can mouse over it to see the advanced news search label displayed and then click on it to get the advanced search features formerly available on a separate page. The advanced options appear in a pop-up box overlaying other content on the page. With less room for advanced features, this new approach removed several options including date sort, source and location, but most of the rest are still there. Sort-by-date is still available as a post-search option on the left-hand side of the page.

While this new approach uses some interesting technology, it is surprisingly poorly designed. It loads more slowly than most Google functions (and this from a company that prides itself on the speed of its technology). Even more troubling is the fact that it does not retain the search query. In any other Google advanced search, clicking on the advanced search link after a previous search retains the previous query in the search boxes.

In this advanced news search, despite a URL that contains the previous query, the new advanced search box no longer contains it; and adding new limits or terms results in a brand new search. Nor is the link to the advanced news search always in the same place. On the Google News homepage, it is only accessible from the small triangle. After running a search, it is no longer in the search box, but it is available on the bottom of the page in the footer and from the gear icon.

UNLABELED ADVANCED SEARCH

Yet another approach to advanced searching features, one that is not labeled as an advanced search, occurs when you are signed in to Google and searching databases of personal content, such as Google+, Gmail, Google Docs, and Google Reader. None of these use the advanced search language, yet all but Google+ have advanced search capabilities. Calendar has a search options link next to the search button. It is similar to the old-style advanced search link still on Scholar and Groups, but clicking on it opens a pane below the search box with the advanced options. Unlike Google News, Calendar pushes the other content farther down the page when it opens the What, Who, Where, Date, and other advanced options.

Gmail and Documents takes the new Google News approach initially, with access to the advanced search from the small down-pointing triangle in the search box. In Gmail, the advanced search options add the syntax for From, To, Subject, Date, and more to the main search box above, just as the Google Web Advanced Search does. Yet in Documents, adding one of the available filters (File types, Visibility, or Ownership) places a blue box with the text from the limit and a small X within the search box itself. This is somewhat similar to the way search tool choices in Images and Videos display at the top of the results (but below the search box) in a single blue box with an X for turning all of them off.

Direct URLs for Advanced Search

Google

Web: www.google.com/advanced_search

Books: www.google.com/advanced_book_search

Groups: groups.google.com/advanced_search

Images: www.google.com/advanced_image_search

News: news.google.com/news/advanced_news_search

Patents: www.google.com/advanced_patent_search

Scholar: scholar.google.com/advanced_scholar_search

Shopping: www.google.com/advanced_product_search

Videos: video.google.com/videoadvancedsearch

Bing

www.bing.com/search?qb=1&FORM=AXRE

Topsy

www.topsy.com/advanced-search

Twitter

twitter.com/#!/search-advanced

OTHER SEARCH ENGINES

As Google tries many different approaches to advanced search, some similar trends appear at other search engines. Hulu’s specialized database of film and TV shows has some advanced search choices specific to its database, such as Episode number, Season number, Channel, and Network, but Hulu has no direct link to an advanced search page. Instead, searchers must submit a query and then click the Advanced Search link in the upper-right corner. Instead of a separate advanced search page, all the options push the results farther down the page somewhat like Google Calendar.

Twitter has had a varied history of search options. Twitter search improved when it bought Summize in 2008 and incorporated advanced search features at http://search.twitter.com, long before search was integrated into the box at the top of the Twitter homepage. Now, that URL no longer exists, and Twitter’s advanced search is invisible to nonlogged in users on the search page. The location of Advanced Search has changed in recent months, but even a searcher who is not logged in can find it at https://twitter.com/#!/search-advanced—at least for the moment.

While advanced search is rarely introduced with the launch of a new search engine, several more recent web search engines still eschew the advanced search label, even though they have advanced capabilities. Neither DuckDuckGo nor blekko, Inc. have it, despite blekko’s advanced slashtag operators and DuckDuckGo’s search settings. Wolfram Alpha has no advanced search. App search engine Quixey has no advanced search as a separate link; instead, it relies on post-search limits on the left of the results page.

Bing, like Live Search before it, has an advanced search (formerly called Search Builder) that displays only after running a search, and the options display below the search box and push the other results down the page. Real-time search engine Topsy Labs, Inc. has an advanced search, even linked on its homepage, but almost all the functions are also available post-search on the left-hand side of the page.

DECLINING INTEREST IN ADVANCED SEARCH

Links to advanced search on the homepage of search engines are in decline, and the use of the term may be fading as well. As search engines explore alternative approaches to offering advanced search opportunities, this option is likely to be only a minor focus of any search company since few searchers use advanced features.

Even those of us who like advanced options may only infrequently need to use them. However, the removal of links to advanced search and the recent and frequently changing capabilities of advanced search (primarily at Google) make it even more difficult for searchers to use such techniques. In the sidebar on page 45 (right), I have listed direct URLs to advanced search pages (that work at the moment) to help make it easier to find some that are still out there and functioning. Even these took a bit of digging to find.

Strangely enough, a Google search for "google advanced search" does not bring up the main Google advanced search page. Instead, it puts Google Canada’s advanced search page at the top and then advanced search links for Images, Patents, Scholar, and others. For added irony, the same search at Bing finds Google’s main advanced search and lists it as the top result.


Greg R. Notess (greg@notess.com; www.notess.com) is reference team leader at Montana State University and founder of SearchEngineShowdown.com.

Comments? Contact the editor (marydee@xmission.com.)

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