Let’s talk about search

So my last post, “Yet another study shows that ‘digital natives’ suck at searching,” seems to have struck a nerve– it’s received over 5000 hits (thanks to links from BoingBoing and Fark, as well as Twitter and Facebook), and I’ve been reading  the wide range of comments that have sprung up in various places (including my blog, BoingBoing, and the original article at Inside Higher Ed).

I think what many people (especially students) don’t understand is that search is both a tool and a process, requiring different skills, knowledge, and experience. You can learn just enough to get by or really master it with a little curiosity, persistence, time, and practice. There are many ways to do this, and you don’t need a formal class– you can teach yourself (as I did).  There are lots of online resources to help you, including tutorials and how-to guides on university and library websites and specific search engine help pages. (And don’t forget about librarians, a seriously underused resource.) There are links to some resources in my posts and my blogroll and I’ll add more soon.

I do believe it’s important for students to be taught (and regularly practice)– at school, in libraries, and at home– the essentials of digital and information literacy and critical thinking, starting at a young age  and continuing throughout their education. These are important life skills which are being sadly neglected.

Yes, it’s a truth universally acknowledged that most students are lazy and want to get quick and “good enough” results. But the problem is that they don’t know what they don’t know. (As the ERIAL researchers noted, “students were just as unaware of the extent of their own information illiteracy as everyone else.”) They have no idea that there’s a world of information out there that you can’t find through a Google search. Most of it has never been digitized and probably never will be (for lack of funding and copyright concerns, among other reasons). Some has been digitized but is locked in proprietary databases and the “invisible web.” Most books and articles published in the US after 1922 are still under copyright, so even if they’ve been digitized chances are they aren’t free (unless you borrow them from a library). Even if information has been indexed in Google, you may never find it if you don’t know how to properly search for it.

Google could certainly improve the situation, but it is a company of engineers trying to make search as easy and simple as possible for the vast majority of users, giving them a single “magic box” into which they can type anything and get results, even if they’ve spelled the keywords wrong or don’t really know what they are looking for. Some of the “improvements” they’ve made over time have made it frustrating for advanced users like me, such as ignoring the terms I’ve actually typed and substituting what they assume I’m looking for, or filtering my results based on my past search history. And if you want more advanced search options, Google doesn’t make it easy to find or learn about them, and their help articles often aren’t helpful at all. Search is not just an engineering problem to be solved– it is both an art and a science, and there is no one-size-fits-all solution. But no matter how good or flawed a tool like Google search is, anyone can learn how to use it well and get far better results.

A number of people have asked for some advice and tips on search, so here you go.

General advice:

  • When using any search engine, database, or website with search functions, take a few moments to read the instructions or help pages to figure out how to use the site to its full advantage.
  • Search engines are constantly evolving, so you should periodically review the instructions to see if you need to make changes in the way you search.
  • Every search engine is different, so what works for one won’t necessarily work for all, and each may produce different results using the same search terms.
  • If there is an “advanced search” option, you should always use it, as it will give you much more control over your searching and the results.
  • Refine your search. Experiment with different keywords and combinations of keywords. Look for clues to other possible keywords, such as related terms, alternate names, and subject-specific terminology. If you don’t get the results you are looking for, keep trying different things.
  • Remember to look beyond just the first few search results.

Some Google-specific tips:

  • Google’s search tips and help articles can be hard to find, but they do have useful information. Here are direct links:
  • Use Google’s advanced search function, which allows you to limit your search  in many different ways and combinations (all these words, this exact wording or phrase, one or more of these words, don’t show pages that have any of these unwanted words, language, file type, search within a site or domain, etc.). There is no longer a link to it on the main search page– it’s now hidden behind the gear icon (search settings) in the upper right corner. Here’s the direct link:  http://www.google.com/advanced_search?hl=en
  • If you’d rather use Google’s main search box instead of the advanced search, the help articles I linked to above have command shortcuts you can use, such as placing quotation marks around exact phrases. Note that Google no longer uses all Boolean operators. (You don’t need AND as it is the default in all searches. You can still use OR. Don’t use NOT, instead place a minus sign (-) directly before any words or terms you want to exclude.)
  • Google has many specialized search functions for images, news, blogs, scholarly papers, books, patents, etc.  Look in the upper left-hand corner, click “more,” then click “even more” for a full list. Here’s the direct link to the list:  http://www.google.com/intl/en/about/products/index.html
  • All the words you put in the query will be used and the order you put them in matters.
  • Search is case insensitive, punctuation is usually ignored, and common words (the, a) are usually ignored.
  • Google automatically searches for common variations of a keyword.

A final note: Improving your search skills is important, but it’s even more important that you think critically and evaluate your search results and sources.  (See some of my previous posts for more about this.)

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4 responses to “Let’s talk about search

  1. Thanks for this. I just wrote a post on my own blog about the lousy research my HS kids do, especially on the net. Just in time for school: http://lhealey7604.blogspot.com/2011/08/content-farms-and-student-web-research.html

  2. Pingback: Sterling Editing » Written on the internet

  3. “Yes, it’s a truth universally acknowledged that most students are lazy and want to get quick and ‘good enough’ results.”
    If a student isn’t aware of “what they don’t know” then how can they explore the best results if they only know how to get the “good enough” results? Being a student and a frequent user of google for my research untill very recently I’m curious if this is a condemnation of the students or the system that lets them wallow in ignorance?

  4. Pingback: On Research for Novels | Justine Larbalestier

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