Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Basic vs Advanced Searching

You probably don't use advanced search options very often.

You're not alone. Advanced searchers--such as the members of the search group at Google--use just the basic search functions more than 95% of the time. In practice, no more than 1 search in 20 requires special or Boolean operators other than AND, which is nothing more than using the space key.

You might expect that very experienced searchers would use specialized search tools more than that. Knowing how to use special operators is only a small part of becoming a search expert.

After leading search strategy workshops for a couple of years, I came to realize how little I depended on anything other than good keywords. Boolean operators (except for AND) are not needed most of the time. In fact, unless you really know how to use them, they either limit your search in ways you don't want or yield results you don't expect.

So the first point is that you really don't need to use them. This goes for "", OR, NOT, inurl: and a host of others. Concentrate on the quality of your keywords; that's what does the heavy lifting.

The second point is to know when you really do need an operator. My advice is never to use double quotes ("") around a phrase unless you know for certain that is the exact string you need to query. "Carl Heine" will return all the references to my name, but won't return any occurences of Heine, Carl (which is just as likely) or Carl A. Heine which includes my middle initial. Quotes is a good device for cutting down on the number of keywords in a longer query, for example: bison statistics 2008 "North America" (when you are confident that North America will be included in the information you want).

The OR operator is helpful when you want to cut down on the length of a query and believe there are multiple terms (usually rival nouns or adjectives) that might be in the information. For example: bison statistics OR population OR research 2008 "North America" That's still a four term query.

If you've discovered a time when NOT was essential to a search, let me know. Most of the time it eliminates results that may be valuable without giving you a chance to see them.

I don't believe I've ever needed to use inurl:, intitle: or any of the other in_: operators to find information. Keywords get the job done quite nicely.

Can you be an expert searcher without knowing operators? Over 95% of time, yes.

The real advanced part of being an expert searcher relies on the ability to use words sparingly and recognize words that are more powerful than others in the context being searched. That takes quite a bit of experience using words and predicting how they may be used in the type of search being conducted. For most children that presents a real challenge. They will need help while their linguistic skills mature.

Read the comments for more...


Con said...

Yup, I can think of a time I use the NOT operator. This is one I use often when searching for information of all sorts of gadgets: not ebay

Carl Heine said...

That's a good use of NOT when it's coupled with a very specific term.

Carl Heine said...

When working with younger children who have difficulty categorizing or arranging words from more specific to general, it may help to explore the specific case at hand, keeping the concepts concrete. At that point, the activity becomes more of a language lesson/activity which contributes to an ability to use words in searches.

To give an example, let's say we wanted to find the speed of the fastest animal. Getting children to think about types of animals and grouping them into birds, fish and land animals is part of the search challenge. Many times, people think that the Cheetah is the fastest animal. If we limit the search to land animals, that's correct. But there are birds that go faster. A comparison may be made between transportation types: which goes the fastest, speed boats in the water, race cars on a track or jets in the air? If I had time for an activity like this, I'd bring in pictures (or models) of those types of vehicles and animals and have the children group them in various ways: what do we call all of these together? Which ones fly? Which ones have wheels? Etc. I'd want to get around to having them think about the types of animals that might go the fastest. Then we could search for fastest bird, fastest land animal, fastest fish and see the results.

Guided searches are probably best with younger children--give them the words they need, or have them choose words from a question that are more important to use (I think they should be able to do this with help).