Monday, October 20, 2008

Looking for Questions vs Answers

I received an email a couple days ago from an educator who was preparing a lesson on turning questions into queries. She was planning to use the Broadway Challenge with students. While first trying out the challenge (always recommended!) she discovered a correct answer that was not in the game's database. Consequently, I updated the challenge and went to check it out, as it had been a while since I last tried this one.

To my surprise, I retrieved a page from WikiAnswers with the question posted verbatim. Apparently someone had tried unsuccessfully to find an answer and submitted the question online to see if any help was forthcoming. Other than a handful of ads, the answer I found there (20) was way off. A correct answer would be the URL of a page where the answer can be found.

I added my own answer to the question, hinting how it may be solved.

This raises an important point in searching. If people are looking for answers, why do they search for the questions? Thinking about how an answer to a question might be worded often provides new ideas for effective keywords.

Instead of thinking about the task as "what is the top speed of earth's fastest animal?" it is better to think "the fastest animal (travels, goes, runs, flies) X miles per hour (mph)." There are several alternative words that suggest themselves when turning this into a possible answer--the most important is "miles per hour" OR mph, since the others are all verbs. Finding alternatives is often the key to retrieving hard-to-locate information.

For the Broadway Challenge, the question is a little harder to convert. One might imagine a page that lists the show openings in a table, each row being a year, including 1984 to the present. That actually helps in finding the solution. If you want, post your successful queries here.

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