Saturday, September 12, 2009

Query Checklist Revisited

A number of years ago, we published the Query Checklist, a guide for turning questions into queries. I seldom think about the checklist anymore--I guess I've internalized the list, so checking off the items as I search really isn't necessary.

I thought it would be helpful to revisit the checklist to see if it's still relevant. As search engines have evolved, maybe something has changed.

The original list was the combined search wisdom of the 21cif team back when there were 7 of us and IMSA was the publisher. Now there are just two of us and 21cif is privately owned. That's what happens when federal funding runs out. At least the program survived, thanks to IMSA's decision to release it to its authors.

Here's the list, if you're not already familiar with it:

1. How many key concepts (important ideas) are found in the question?
2. How many key concepts will I search for?
3. What keywords are probably effective “as is?”
4. For which concepts are more effective keywords probably needed?
5. Are there hyponyms or professional language for any of the intermediate words?
6. Are there words that have multiple meanings?
7. Did I use any stop words or clutter words?
8. Did I spell the words correctly?
9. Did I put the most important words first?

There's too much here to cram into one blog posting, so I'll spread it out over a series.

Let me start with number 8, which seems pretty obvious. The importance of this question depends on the search engine being used. For instance, Google has a built-in spell checker so you might think spelling no longer matters much. When spelling does matter is when the misspelled word turns out to be a bona fide yet different word.

Example 1: If you are looking for information on bear tracks but mistakenly type bare tracks, Google thinks there's nothing wrong with your spelling and returns information on an Australian nudist colony. An honest mistake, but not one you'd likely want to make in front of a class of students.

When words have more than one spelling, or a different word happens to match the misspelling, then spelling counts.

Example 2: When a search engine lacks the capacity to spell check, then literal matching is all you've got. If you search for Mississipi using the Farmers Almanac, you won't get any results.

Challenge: Take the top ten search engines you use and see which ones check spelling. Better yet, have your students do this for practice. Don't have 10 search engines that you use? Time to branch out.

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