Saturday, February 05, 2005

Search Engine Follies

Lynn Sislo on people who don't know how to use search engines correctly:

There are a lot of people of all ages who don't know how to use the Internet or else they are so lazy they expect they can type in a word or two and whatever they want will instantly appear on the screen. The apparent notion that any website that comes up on a Google search is somehow obligated to have the information the searcher is looking for is laughable.

Heh, indeed, and all that. While I haven't had anyone actually attack me for not having the information they're looking for (which should be apparent from the Google results anyway, since Google provides the relevant snippet of quotage from the web site in question, thus making it fairly obvious that maybe the search term results are coming from entirely different sentences and/or posts), anyone who maintains a blog for even a short while soon notices the kind of strange search engine queries that bring people calling. Most are benign, of course -- someone looking for something happens upon the possibility that a post of mine may have mentioned what they've been looking for, and they come calling.

But then there are the truly bizarre search engine requests. I'm not talking about the ever-surprised soft-porn requests that somehow lead people here, but the just-plain-strangely worded Google requests in the first place. This is what I sometimes think of as the "Star Trek Library Computer" view of the Internet. Remember that episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation in which some aliens tried to help some poor off-course human space explorer by building a replica of the hotel described in the trashy novel he'd been reading for him to live in, under the assumption that the novel depicted a proper human habitat? And how, upon discovering this two centuries later, Captain Picard orders the Enterprise computer to display the text of the novel (which, judging by the episode's subtext, had probably not been read since those very aliens had found it), and the computer pops up the text in seconds? (Picard starts reading, and sure enough, the book opens with, "It was a dark and stormy night...")

I think that people expect the Net to basically be the proto-version of the Star Trek computer: a repository of every single bit of content ever generated by the Hand of Man. And judging by the odd phrasing of search-engine requests, they think that search engines constitute the interface through which they access this information (fair enough), and that they approach that interface in the same way. This, of course, is wrong. Wrongity-wrong. Returning to Star Trek, remember that bit in Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home when Scotty, encountering a 1986-era Macintosh, picks up the mouse and tries to talk into it? That's the exact same level of misunderstanding here. People think that a search engine is like a reference librarian: you tell it what you want, and then it goes off and comes back with exactly what you want. And more, you don't have to evaluate what's been provided; all you have to do is take your information and go on your merry way. The idea that the searcher may have some responsibility for making sure they've found what they want seems unheard of.

And that's why we see Google requests phrased really strangely. If a person's looking for, say, an exploration of the themes in Berlioz's Romeo et Juliet Symphony, instead of seeing a Google search phrased like this:

themes Berlioz "Romeo et Juliet"

I'll see things like this:

Give me information on the themes in Berlioz's Romeo and Juliet symphony

And then there are some truly hilarious ones. I can't remember where I saw it, but I once encountered a Google request phrased something like this:

Give me Barry Bonds's stats for 1996. I repeat, 1996. Not 1997.

I'm not making that up. I can't recall what the person was actually looking for, but the "I repeat..." phrase was there.

So what's the problem? Well, it's twofold: first, lots of people don't know how to effectively look for information in the first place, and second, lots of people don't know how to actually evaluate the information they find, once they've found it. This all seems to me fairly problematic, given how often I read that we are now living in the "Age of Information".

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