Friday, August 22, 2008

Browsing Challenge

Just as there are three ways to find information in a book, there are three ways to find information online:

Table of Contents <--> Subject Directory
Index <--> Search Engine
Flipping through pages <--> Browsing Web pages

Knowing when to use each method can save time searching. Normally, the fastest way to search is to use an index or a search engine. Search engines can retrieve millions of records in a fraction of a second (the challenge is sorting through them).

The Table of Contents or a Subject Directory helps in understanding how information is organized. Online Subject Directories are best when pre-selected information is sought or for getting ideas about a subject. More about that shortly.

Flipping through pages or browsing is the most time-consuming way to search. Most searches end by browsing.

Browsing is an indispensable skill. It's also the hardest skill to master. On many occasions when I've observe people browsing, they actually retrieve pages with the information they need and just don't realize it. In some cases this problem stems from not reading the information--simply going too fast. In other cases it happens when the searcher isn't clear about what to find. Both problems have fairly simple remedies: [1] slow down and [2] think about keyword relationships.

Focus on keyword relationships
Here the task is to think about the keywords used in the search. Where are they found in the results? Many search engines make this easy by highlighting or bolding the terms used in the query. Otherwise, the Find Command (Ctrl F) is helpful for picking out keywords used where there is a lot of text.

But this is usually not enough, because the keywords you start with are very likely not the keywords you need to find the information you want. You might think your keywords are great, but the author of the material probably used different words. We've called this the 1 in 5 rule: on average, a person's ability to match the word used by another person is 1 in 5. The exceptions tend to be Proper Nouns and numbers, which is why these are good keywords to use in a query when possible.

So browsing is hard because the word you need is not one you are thinking about yet.

This is why it's necessary to think about keyword relationships: what words are close to the words I'm thinking about? This is not unlike playing hot and cold: am I getting warmer if I use this word?

Using a Subject Directory is a good way to practice keyword relationship browsing skills. The challenge is to find a path to information that answers the question, starting with the highest level of the directory. Don't be tempted to use the search box that comes with the directory. The rule for this exercise is: only clicking is allowed--no keyboard strokes.

Be warned: this may be frustrating. I've talked with numerous librarians who struggled with this (mostly because the way information is categorized is not the standard way). Keep this question in mind: what better word or words do I see that can get me closer to the information I need? If you click and find yourself somewhere that feels colder, go back to where it was warmer.

Browsing Challenges:

1. Using only this Subject Directory, find plans for building a tree house. (fairly easy)
2. Using only this Subject Directory, find sites about Will Smith. (fairly easy)
3. Using only this Subject Directory, find a fashion model agency in Minnesota. (medium)
4. Using only this Subject Directory, find information about the World Game of Economics. (may be more difficult)

There may be more than one path for a solution.

Good Luck and Good Browsing!

Post your discoveries in comments or look for answers in the next blog.
Answers to the previous Search Challenge:

ISBN for the book Future by Bill Gates: 978-0670859436 (or just 0670859436) Unfortunately, the book is out of print. Finding the ISBN is easy if you use a database such as and advance search the following (keywords = future) and (author = bill gates). It's the first return.

No comments: