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Magazines > Searcher > November/December 2003
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Vol. 11 No. 10 — Nov/Dec 2003
COLUMN
WEBMASTRY
by Gary Price | Gary Price Research and Internet Consulting

What Google Teaches Us that Has Nothing to Do with Searching

This column has not only gone through several different drafts on my word-processing program but even more versions in my mind. It's been said that good writing is often personal writing. So, here goes.

A little more than a decade ago, I started as a library school student. Prior to leaving for Wayne State's Library and its information science program, I encountered friends who couldn't figure out why I wanted to go to school to become — of all things — a librarian. As many of you know, this is just about the time (we're in the pre-Web period) the Internet started to really develop as a tool of potential interest and use to the library profession. For once in my life, perfect timing.

A couple of years later, that "why would you want to be a librarian" talk had done a 180-degree turn. Now the tune friends hummed was, "Wow, Gary, what a cool job you have!"

Jump forward a few more years, to today, and while I hope my friends have a good idea that the world of librarianship and information retrieval is much more than going to Google and typing in a few words, I'm starting to get the feeling that for others, the masses so to speak, finding the answer to a question does mean simply going to one site, entering a few words, and waiting for a link to "the answer" to magically appear.

How sad for them and for us.

Search engine expert Danny Sullivan was quoted in USA Today as saying, "It's gotten to the point where people think if it's not in Google, it doesn't exist." Sullivan's comments reinforced what I had been thinking. (See http://www.usatoday.com/tech/news/2003-08-25-google_x.htm.)

What happened? How have we gotten to this point? Why do more and more people believe that universal truth is just a click away via a single source? Most importantly, what does this mean for the information professional? There is enough here for more than my column, probably enough for a couple of dissertations.

Let's start with Google. This column is not an attack or an attempt to blame Google or any other person or group. Far from it! Google should be commended for what it has done, not only with technology, but even more interestingly with how it has positioned and marketed its service. What can we, as a profession, learn from Google?

With almost zero traditional advertising, Google has exploited the power of word-of-mouth marketing to become synonymous with Web search and, for some people, research itself.

The editor of this publication, Barbara Quint, saw it coming a year ago, when she correctly noted that Google was becoming a verb [http://www.infotoday.com/searcher/feb02/voice.htm]. Google as a verb is here. You don't search or research any more, you Google it. Some people, especially those who haven't used the services of a library or librarian for many years, if ever, most likely see little or no need for the services of a librarian any more.

Is it this idea which "informs" the minds of the people who decide to either close down or curtail a library's services? In other words, "Why do we need a librarian, we've got Google?"

Of course, we understand that these ideas are flat out WRONG, but while X Library has a staff of trained librarians, licenses full-text databases, offers virtual reference services, and also houses things called reference books, many people still have a "Google or bust" mentality.

How has the Google phenomenon led to this situation?

No doubt about it. Google was in the right place at the right time.

Other Web engines produced fair to mediocre results; Google's were better. In time, companies like AltaVista, Excite, and Terra Lycos retreated to "portal" strategies, seeking to become all things to all people, rather than focusing on the fact that the key to a good search engine is its underlying database.

Google did not want to become a portal; its focus is on search. Plus, Google gave its users a sense that it was a "people" type of product. From day one, it created an image of being cool to use.

Sad but true, libraries and librarians have quite the opposite effect on many people — particularly those with no clue of what the librarian of 2003 is all about. What have we done to change these ideas?

Unfortunately, not enough.

While this "Googlefication" was going on, information professionals, as a group, didn't speak loudly enough to tell people that Google is just the tip of the iceberg and that Web searching has many limitations, depending on your information needs.

Beyond Google

I don't need to waste your time highlighting what we can offer that Google can't. Let me just point to one thing: that we can offer our skills in making choices on where to start searching, on information authority, and more quality issues. In other words, we can save people time in acquiring accurate and timely information.

True, Google will always give you something, but links are not the same as answers — let alone authoritative answers. I sometimes think that the library community is just as much part of the Google craze as the general public. Yes, Google is good, but so are other general and focused Web engines. Are we aware of the MAJOR improvements these tools have made over the past few years? Tara Calishain, a fellow Searcher writer and author of Google Hacks, was recently quoted by the AP as saying, ''Google has a lot of smart people who have built a great search engine, but there are a lot of other smart people out there looking for ways to make search engines even better" [http://www.redlandsdailyfacts.com/
Stories/0,1413,209~23371~1550024,00.html]
.

I couldn't agree more with Tara. How about you? Have you kept current with what other Web engines like AlltheWeb and Teoma are up to? Are you aware about the services these tools offer? Have you tried finding an answer with Web engines besides Google?

And do we spend enough time doing Web collection development? If you start each and every time by running a Web search and then browsing results, why?

Little effort as a profession has been placed on local collection development of free Web-based resources and information professionals "learning" good answer sources before they need them. This is no different than a good reference librarian knowing and learning (scope, currency, etc.) the books in his or her print collection. In fact, doing this allows the library the chance to maximize the free material on the Web and use directories of Web resources as collection development tools.

Beyond Free

But enough about freely accessible Web material. We know that the Web is a tool, not a solution. Have we demonstrated this fact to our users? Not well enough!

These days, all types of libraries make fee-based products directly available to the end user. However, in my travels, I hear stories on a regular basis about how many users think Google is it. Look at what public libraries around the country and the world offer today — amazing and expensive high-quality content free to use from any computer inside or outside the library. But ask your nonlibrarian friends if they know what's available. Very likely they'll say they had no idea, I wish I would have known about it 3 weeks ago.

Beyond Passivity

I keep asking myself, why as a group, the information professional hasn't seen what Google has done with word-of-mouth marketing and begun to use it. It's very inexpensive and, as we know from Google and other companies, can lead to very positive results. Many of us see hundreds of people each week, people who want our help.

Google often "energizes" its word-of-mouth marketing by getting to information gatekeepers like journalists, teachers, key members of a company, etc. and demonstrating (or as Mary Ellen Bates puts it, politely "getting in their faces") about what their service offers. Again, doing this costs only time.

We should do the same and show them that libraries of 2003 are full of professionals and tools easily used both inside and outside the library building. I talk to journalists on a regular basis, and when I show them what's available to potentially help get them an answer I always receive something along the lines of, "Amazing, I didn't know that this was available." I probably should ask if they have ever considered asking a librarian for help.

Marketing a training session these days as "learn how to use library databases" won't work. Instead, title the presentation "Google Searching and Beyond." Now, that should lift attendance. So share some Google tricks with them, but then start demonstrating what you and your library can do — with blazing speed and clear authority — that Google can't do well or at all.

Some people still think library databases are hard to search. Give me a break. Where have vendors been to assist libraries to "get in the end users' faces" by helping us demonstrate that searching most fee-based databases can be as easy as going to a single search box?

Companies like ProQuest and Gale offer numerous interfaces depending on the user's need and skill level. Of course, skill level makes no difference when the end user has no idea what is available.

Libraries and library databases are not a field of dreams. Building and licensing them does not mean people will come and use them.

It was sad to see a few weeks ago when Louis Borders (of bookstore fame) launched a new company called KeepMedia that sells full-text access to an archive of about 140 newspapers and magazines. I was amazed by the press attention it received. However, nowhere did I read that libraries of all types offer access to collections of articles from thousands of full-text publications for free. Information vendors should have been all over the media pointing this out.

Another example of Google getting it done and libraries falling short lies in the virtual reference arena. About a year ago, Google launched Google Answers, a fee-based service where someone with an information need can ask a question and have a Google "expert" get back to them with an answer. However, the rapid rise of virtual reference from libraries continues to proliferate with only occasional attention by the mainstream media. It's just as easy for a college freshman to use his or her university's virtual reference service — and not incur a fee — as to go to Google Answers. However, the college student can't use it if he doesn't know it's available.

From an access to information standpoint, I find it rather ironic that in a time when the FCC is under fire for allowing media conglomerates to get larger, it seems many people are quite satisfied in allowing one company to rule Web accessible material. Let me be clear: I absolutely and unequivocally don't think that Google needs regulation in any way, shape, or form. I do want information professionals to know what choices exist and share them with patrons. Choices and options have always played a major role in what we do.

In an August 2003 USA Today article, Google co-founder Larry Page said that he wants people to still use libraries, even if it is "a lot easier to go to Google first." I wonder if Mr. Page has any idea of what libraries offer users these days? Does he know that libraries of all types offer databases with content not accessible via Google? That these databases are fully accessible from outside of the library building and available 24x7x365? That these databases have become easier to search? That they come with people available to help use them? Even if Mr. Page knows all this, do others?

The library world hasn't done enough to keep up with the Google juggernaut in defining our role in the Web age. We must do better and we must start now.


Eight Starting Points

Here are eight things I think all of us, in an organized way, must begin to work to achieve. This is not a job for a single person or a single library group, but for all of us.

1. Reach out to people who haven't been in a library in many years. Point out that library services go way beyond the four walls of the library building.

2. Develop personal relationships with users. In the same way bankers used to know their customers' needs, let people know you are "their" information go-to person.

3. Not only tell people we're here, but why we're here and precisely what we offer. The phrase "save them time" is a good place to begin.

4. Court people in gatekeeper roles like journalists and teachers and demonstrate what we can offer. In addition, let them know that you're always ready to assist them. Helping them one or two times can do wonders.

5. Publicize librarian-created services, for example, general Web directories like the Librarians' Index to the Internet, Infomine, and the Resource Discovery Network. Explain how important the editors of these services consider the quality of information.

6. Remind people that passing up the library might mean they end up paying for material the library offers them for free.

7. Clearly illustrate and demonstrate Google's limitations but more importantly, demonstrate how you and your library can solve these problems.

8. Remind people that a link to a possible answer is still not an answer.


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