Think Like a Searcher
by Barbara Quint
I read a scary statistic the other day. Last year it seems the number of Americans going online only increased 3 percent. That wasn’t the scary statistic, though. Since the final count of Americans on the Internet still amounted to some 207,000,000 people and since the population of the whole country is 298,354,897, I figure 91,000,000 and counting just amounts to mopping up. The scary statistic from Nielsen/NetRatings was that the number of online searches conducted had jumped 55 percent, up to 5,100,000,000 searches in the month of December last as compared to a mere 3,300,000,000 for December the year before. That means an increase from a per-searcher average of around 16 searches a month to some 25 searches a month or from approximately one search every 2 days to close to one search a day.
Ken Cassar, senior director of analytics at Nielsen/NetRatings, commented, “The double-digit increase in online search activity marks a significant milestone in the evolution of Internet consumer behavior. Online search is the primary tool most people rely on to do everyday research.” Then the report nattered on about Google (1st and getting “1st-er”), Yahoo! Search (actually down three-tenths of a percent), MSN Search (slumping from 14 percent to 10.9 percent), and some 57 also-ran search engines.
But who cares about who wins the search engine race? All those searches! Billions and billions each month! All those amateur searchers, hundreds of millions! Practically the entire citizenry, the entire consumer base, the entire literate population — practically everybody with fingers! Is it wonderful? Sure. Is it a huge achievement? Yeh. Is it a historical change in the development of the species? Natch. But, Mother of Mercy, is it a whole lot of bad searches? Mammoth! Humongous! Oceanic! And the only thing worse than the time-wasting, zero successful results, “where do they get this junk,” dead-end searches are the ones that seem successful, but aren’t; the ones that provide answers that just aren’t true or not true enough to rely upon; the ones that look good but lure the guileless to their digital doom.
The dangers come from all over. This month’s issue carries companion pieces from Rich Wiggins and Leslie Stebbins showing a conduit into Google News for semi- and even downright hoaxes. Even the most reliable sources, the authorities’ authority, the biblicals’ Bible, like Science magazine and Nature magazine, can find themselves hoaxed by false scientific documents. Then there’s all that blogosphere content, where even the best and most reliable sources can get so much wrong, usually in a rush to get the story first. A friend of mine with whom I share a common political stance now refuses to believe in “mainstream media.” She seems to think they’ve been bought off in some giant conspiracy. I continue to point out to her how often the news items which she uses to document this dire situation actually come from that same “mainstream media,” unless http://www.nytimes.com and http://www.wpost.com have gone alternative press while I wasn’t looking. But in a world of “roll your own reality” digital searching, it’s a hard sell.
And then there’s all that attractively packaged, partially authoritative material, usually replete with accepted historical fictions. (“John Gilbert, popular idol of the silent cinema, lost his star status when talkies came in due to his high-pitched voice.” Phooey. Gilbert didn’t have a high-pitched voice; it was actually rather raspy. More likely his acting style and persona didn’t suit the Depression-era audience’s taste.) Then there are all the sources that try their best but don’t have the whole story, e.g., knowing one side of an artist’s career, only the recent history of an institution, or thinking — and writing — that online began with the Internet. And how about the sources that rely on inherently flawed research processes, e.g., the buyer-based, comparative product reviews where you just know there is no chance in the world that any of the “real people” buyers bought more than one of the items being reviewed, so how could they compare them?
But even if the sources are pure of heart and long of brain, committed to accuracy and capable of meeting that commitment, what about the acumen, training, knowlegeability, and natural talent of the sea of endless end users? Do they think like searchers, real searchers? Clearly the style of the databases currently in use tend to accommodate the amateur searcher’s expectations and limitations. But sometimes it’s a matter of approach. Heck! Most times it’s a matter of approach. For example, do they know or learn string pulling where you have one bit of data from one source but want another piece, so you do a sequence of searches? The other day I wanted the name of a store in Northern California that I had seen in a catalog. I had already thrown the catalog away, but I went to the catalog’s site, found a description of the item that identified the maker, and then Googled my way to the maker, who had its own online store with more items covered. Sequence searching from the known to the semi-known to the unknown. Just part of a professional searcher’s mind-set.
More important, we pros always looks both ways when searching, looking for the answer to the question, of course, but also checking on the sources as we go — quality, currency, bias, competence. We notice when we’ve found a gem of a source or a gem of an approach to finding a source. We often share that knowledge with other pros. We add that knowledge to our working toolkit to improve future searching. But now that end-users dominate the field and search everywhere for everything, we have to find ways to make sure that new and old systems accommodate their needs and that these searchers grow in wisdom and grace in using the systems.
All of this brings me back to an idea I espoused years ago — the dot-lib category. (See Searcher’s Voice: “Dot-Lib,” Searcher, February 2001 [http://www.infotoday.com/searcher/feb01/voice.htm], and Wallace Koehler’s “Dot-Lib for Libraries — Can It Happen? Ask ICANN,” Searcher, April 2001 [http://www.infotoday.com/searcher/apr01/koehler.htm].)] The idea would be to persuade ICANN, the Internet naming ruling body, to create a gTLD category like the dot-com or dot-edu for libraries and librarian-approved content. I could envision a day when the searchers of the world — all those real people — could have a new choice. Though the universal systems like Google or Yahoo! Search or Ask or whatever would still draw on the full open Web and whatever additional content for which they had access, searchers could aim at the elite content, the pre-approved and pre-authenticated sources, tapping both the open Web and the deep or invisible Web’s proprietary content. Librarians —or, as they are known to the FBI and Department of Homeland Security personnel, those “radical, militant librarians” — would have muscled the vendors that serve them to open up approved routes to all their content, routes that might impose charges, but which would, at least, never deprive the searchers of the world from even knowing of the existence of the information. (In preparation for that happy day, librarians reading this piece might want to make sure their “radical militant librarian” buttons are in the ready. You can buy them at http://www.ala.org/Template.cfm?Section=basicrelatedlinks&
Dot-Lib or no Dot-Lib, we’ve all got to find a way to make the world — and its Web — a little safer and then a lot safer for the universe of searchers relying on it as their primary research tool.
Barbara Quint's e-mail
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