Thinking About Search
Editor • ONLINE
Research doesn’t start when you enter words into a search box. It begins with conceptualizing the project. What is the intent of the search? What are you trying to accomplish? And why? Who is interested enough in the topic to have collected data and written about it? What terms will best tease out relevant results? How much do you know before you begin? Is it a topic with which you’re familiar or something brand new to you?
Presearch contemplation leads to admirable results. Without that, results can be mediocre at best and totally off target at worst. Note I’m talking about research here, not a quick look-up, which may not require much time between a question being posed and terms entered at a search engine.
How do you think about search? Dan Russell, in the search challenges he poses at SearchReSearch (http://searchresearch1.blogspot.com), often gives useful search hints. He once suggested thinking like fact-checkers. For example, if asked, “What is the circumference of the earth?” the fact-checker would realize no one could physically walk the circumference to measure it, but NASA would have the best opportunity to come up with a reasonable guesstimate.
Not taking requests at face value is another attribute of presearch contemplation. Question assumptions. Is the premise of the question accurate? The requestor could be curious about the number of miles Phileas Fogg would have traveled as he circumnavigated the globe in Around the World in 80 Days but thinks this is too complicated a question, so he tries to be “helpful” by “simplifying” the question.
Information professionals go beyond fact-checking. We are also looking for opinions, for different views of a topic, for a well-rounded group of information sources. We are also concerned with sources that present different answers and need to understand why that is so. We can’t reduce all the questions we get to the equivalent of fact-checking. It’s much more than that and requires critical thinking, creative approaches, and web search skills.
Increasingly, information professionals aren’t in fact-checker mode. They’re not even in “find me the answer” or “locate some good articles” mode. They’re in analytical mode. Having located information, whether from peer-reviewed journals, the trade press, newspapers, or social media, they can now examine the contents by sentiment analysis, text mining, infographic creation, or network relationships. Other analytics can come into play. What interests and trends are revealed when you scrutinize visitor traffic to your website, retweeted tweets, trackbacks of blog posts, or hits on sites to which you’ve linked?
Lists of resources, from traditional databases or web search engines, no longer completely satisfy information professionals or their clientele. Our mission is changing. We’re not solely in the information retrieval business. We’re in the idea generation and knowledge creation business. Although thinking like a fact-checker and gathering relevant information is still part of our professional lives, we have to think about search differently.