Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Yes, There's a Need - Part 3

When people aren't sure what else to do, they resort to browsing.

While using a query or truncating a url might be a faster solution to a search problem, if a person isn't sure what else to do, he or she will browse. Even the best searchers do this. (And almost every search ends by browsing.)

Browsing is typically the least efficient of the three main search methods. Using a search engine is the quickest and using a subject directory (0r menu) can get one closer to the target in fewer clicks. But there's something fundamentally satisfying or comforting about browsing that makes it a preferred method.

In terms of satisfaction, browsing provides immediate feedback. You still have to scan the surroundings to determine what the feedback says about getting closer or not to your objective, but it's a bit like low stakes gambling and pretty addictive.

Nonetheless, browsing is not a good substitute technique much of the time. For example, I got an email recently about a link being changed on one of the pages associated with a particular search challenge. The page to be investigated really didn't call for browsing, but that's what this individual was doing when he or she discovered the changed link (it wasn't dead, it now pointed to something unrelated). The optimal technique is a string search of a statement to see if it is considered truthful by external sources. Following page links will not achieve this. In fact, browsing tends to confirm the truthfulness of the statement because the links provided on the page reflect the bias, not the objectivity, of the author.

Here's my advice: think before you browse. Ask yourself, is there another technique I know that might be more efficient or suited to the task? If not, ask yourself, what keywords am I looking for that will tell me I'm getting closer? You don't need to compile such a list first. Just being sensitive to the question will help you evaluate the keywords in the links you come across. Some will bear a closer relationship to your target than others.

I ended up removing the page with the (misleading) links from the tutorial challenge. It hadn't occurred to me that anyone would try to follow them, so I hadn't vetted them. Some led to objectionable content. Now the page has no links. The only way to answer the question is to use the preferred technique. Of course, if you don't know what that technique is, you're sunk.

Here's the challenge:

1 comment:

Carl Heine said...

I could write a separate blog on the things that students have the most difficulty with on the Investigative Searching pretest, but since it involves browsing, I think it fits best here. When the task involves browsing, students do OK (about 50-60% accuracy). When browsing will not solve the search challenge, their success rate plummets to around 15%. This is evident in their scores when the task requires truncation, special database and operator queries and finding page information.