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Guest Column: Poor craftsmen blame their tools

By on August 25, 2011No Comment

Search 101?

Blaming search tools for failures in search is common, and more often than not without merit.  It often seems as if Google has failed us when we search for content that we know exists, yet the search results taunt us by refusing to reveal what we are looking for.

The truth however, is that we are simply incredibly bad at using search tools.  Two items came to my attention this week that demonstrates our ineptitude at finding what we are looking for.  The first was a statistic derived from research by Dan Russell, a search anthropologist at Google, who was interviewed by Alexis Madrigal for theAtlantic.  Russell studies how computer users perform searches, and found that 90% of computer users do not know how to use CTRL + F (PC) or Command + F (Mac) to search through a document or Web page.

The time that is surely wasted by not using this simple technique is staggering.  (Just to make sure we all are out of the 90%, this shortcut to the Find function allows you to search locally for keywords in a text document, PDF, e-mail, or Web page.  Try it out and join the 10%.)

The second piece of the puzzle comes from reports on the findings of the Erial (Ethnographic Research in Illinois Academic Libraries) project.  The project was conducted over two years and employed both anthropologists and library staff members to examine student research habits and attitudes towards libraries and librarians.

The findings from the study will begin to be published this fall, but Steve Kolowich, writing for Inside Higher Education, notes that the researchers found that students were even worse at search than they had anticipated.  In his article, What Students Don’t Know, Kolowich discusses some of the findings, including the following;

- Only 7 out of 30 students observed at Illinois Wesleyan conducted what a librarian would consider a reasonably well-executed search.  (Presumably this encompasses such criteria as the use of appropriate search engines, Boolean logic, and authoritative sources.)

- Students mentioned Google more than twice as many times as other available databases in interviews, yet had no understanding of Google’s search logic and were not capable of formulating searches that would return good results.

- Of the students who did turn to non-Google scholarly databases for research, 50% ended up using a database that would not have been recommended by a librarian for their search needs.

- Only 3 of 30 students that were observed formulating search queries used additional keywords to narrow search queries.

- The researchers observed that students would end up with either too many or too few search results, and would often simply change their research topic to one that was easier to find information on.

It is staggeringly clear that there is a need to teach basic search techniques to students, who, without instruction, will likely go on to become part of the 90% of computer users not using simple page search.  We have created powerful search tools and technology (compared to what previous generations had available) that are capable of so much, yet we are clearly neglecting to teach proper usage and even basic understanding of search mechanics.  Even much needed advancements in search technology will not help if we are not even capable of using the tools we have now to their full potential.

Cody Burke is a senior analyst at Basex.  He can be reached at cburke@basex.com

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