The Limit of Search Engines

It may seem like an odd thing, but studies show that students generally choose a hit from the first page of a Google search whether or not it has anything to do with the problem at hand.

This bears thinking about.  Is it due to simple rashness, an inability to click though a couple more pages, because Google results always seem so “right on the money”?  I don’t think so … inappropriate choices have long been the case with search engines and, frankly, were the case long ago when students had to use the many (paper!) volumes of The Reader’s Guide to Periodical Literature when doing research.

No … it’s much more likely because students, being students, don’t know enough to reliably distinguish between a “good answer” and a “bad answer.”  If they did, what would be the purpose of them taking the class?

Perhaps students need to be instructed a bit more in how to use search engines.  I’ve no problem with that, but the set of “knowing how to use a search engine” does not necessarily intersect with the set of “understanding when you’ve found an appropriate answer.”  Ignorance – and even willful ignorance – is still a trump.

H. G. Wells wrote to the effect that the more of an expert a person is in one field, the less he knows in every other field.  This is to say that we are all ignorant about most of the things we encounter in life … and thus all too ready to pick something bogus from the very first page.

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7 Responses to The Limit of Search Engines

  1. back40 says:

    Would your thesis be enhanced by consideration of the quality of the question? Asking good questions, formulating good queries etc. seem especially important for net searching since the engine designers strive for relevance.

  2. librarybob1 says:

    It’s part of it … it’s hard to ask a good question unless you’ve some vague glimmer of what an answer might be.

    In my view, those of us who work (or have worked) a library reference desk should be engaged in collective “knowledge management” with our colleagues. Having the right book or the right database is only one step in the right direction.

  3. back40 says:

    I recently reread Snow Crash, which solved the problem with a research librarian avatar to assist with inquiries. It’s a common fictional solution, a cop out in a sense, but still compelling: librarybob, uploaded, replicated and massively forked.

  4. librarybob1 says:

    Yes, it *is* a cop out … not a bad one, just not one that is currently attainable. I think there are two reasons why it may not be workable in many cases (though it would be in many others).

    First, sussing out the questioner’s intent requires a “theory of mind” that is not at all obvious — is the questioner a student or an expert? The clues (grammar, clothing, age, political stance expressed in conversation, etc.) aren’t necessarily obvious and are very situational.

    Second, it assumes that people would *want* to interact with an avatar that makes demands on their minds. Google succeeds because it is dead simple (if not reliable, especially lately due to spam sites reflecting search terms). I really don’t know of anyone who still uses the Yahoo! directory, but it remains a good source for those who can chop and dice their own questions.

    (Am considering the effects of being uploaded, replicated and massively forked. 🙂 )

  5. back40 says:

    I see two algorithmic glimmerings of a theory of mind in current search systems.

    One is the list of previous searches that is offered as you type in your current search. It isn’t just a convenience that saves you from typing a few letters by completing a string, it offers strings that you may not have considered but that others have used.

    Another is feedback about your string, sometimes just offering possibly more correct spelling, but also offering slightly different strings.

    There are other affordances for drilling down or expanding searches that have some small intelligence of a heuristic nature.

    Some of my boots on the ground work associates are not very verbal but still fairly bright. These types of systems have improved their searching experiences considerably.

  6. librarybob1 says:

    There’s also the disambiguation function in Wikipedia … very handy (as long as you’re a rung or two above absolute ignorance).

    There’s another thing which causes search problems … looking for an illusion. People who “mis-know” a fact aren’t likely to find the “objective truth” (when there is such) simply because the clues are either not obvious or are somehow “painful.”

    Of course, even when face-to-face with someone holding to an illusion it may be hard to steer them in the right direction!

  7. back40 says:

    Homo Confabulus

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