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Magazines > ONLINE > November/December 2011
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Online Magazine

Vol. 35 No. 6 — Nov./Dec. 2011

Global Anomalies
by Marydee Ojala
Editor • ONLINE

International research, a theme of this issue, has many components—one is vocabulary. In the traditional online world, professors of library and information science, along with online vendor trainers, stressed the necessity of including alternative spellings—labor and labour, theater and theatre, aluminum and aluminium—when constructing a search statement. They acknowledged, sort of, meaning variations—diapers and nappies, car trunks and boots, elevators and lifts. More subtle differences eluded the best of searchers, since public schools in the U.S. are private schools in the U.K. In the U.S., people eat potato chips while in the U.K. they snack on crisps. You travel by tube in one country but watch the tube in the other. And those differences don’t begin to touch differences with Australian, New Zealand, and other nationalities’ brands of the English language.

Traditional online training rarely mentioned using synonyms from other languages, such as wood and holz, war and guerre, or business and liiketoiminta. (That’s German, French, and Finnish, respectively.) Chalk it up to traditional online’s roots in English-language sources.

The web reverses traditional wisdom. Because web search works very differently than traditional online search, you are likely to see results with both labor and labour or theater and theatre regardless of which term you entered. Nappies and diapers, crisps and chips, are a bit more problematic, so you’d probably need to enter both equivalents, depending on what source you’re searching. This is entirely opposite from library databases, where, when you enter tyres, you’ve implicitly excluded U.S. information on tires.

The web is language-agnostic. You can search in any language and probably find something. Non-English language sites, including those with non-Roman characters, might turn up in search results. Furthermore, Google Translate is primed and ready to transform languages you don’t know into languages you do. Granted, the translation is frequently rather rough, but you’ll get the gist.

Sounds liberating, doesn’t’ it? But there’s a downside. When you enter tire* OR tyre* in a library database, your results are exactly the same as every other searcher entering the same search string. But if you enter that string in Google, Bing, or another web search engine, your results may differ greatly from your colleagues. This could be due to geography, either because you’re searching on a country variant of the search engine or because the search engine has geolocated you. It knows where you are and delivers different results based on that knowledge.

Results can also vary based on your search history. A business researcher’s results will skew toward business while an art historian’s will slant toward art, even when search strings are identical.

These global anomalies add considerable challenges to the practice of serious research. Rather than being perplexed when results differ, understand that web search is a different animal than traditional search. It doesn’t pattern match; it tries to be intuitive and outguess you. Thus, the information professionals’ challenge is to outguess the engine that’s trying to outguess you.

Marydee Ojala is the editor of ONLINE. Comments? E-mail letters to the editor to

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