Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Tips from Google: What's Missing?

One of my colleague's recent bookmarks caught my eye:  How to solve impossible problems.  

The link is to a story by John Tedesco of the San Antonio Times about Google search guru Daniel Russell who posed a daunting challenge to a room full of investigative journalists:

What’s the phone number of the office where this picture was snapped?

Here's the photo:

What makes this challenge difficult is that there is no direct information about the office from which the picture was snapped.

According to the article, "(Russell) wasn’t asking for a phone number for the skyscraper in the picture, which sounds hard enough. He wanted the phone number of the precise office where the photographer was standing when the picture was taken.  Nothing in that office was even in the photo. Yet in a few minutes, Russell, a research scientist at Google, revealed the answer by paying attention to small details and walking us through a series of smart Google searches."

Yes, most of us don't put Google's full power to use. Advanced features can make searching more surgical.  The article goes on to illustrate Boolean modifiers (what works and doesn't) as well as operators many people haven't tried lately, if ever. It's a good summary; take a look.

But Google is all about finding. Nothing about how good a result may be. This is typical of most students. We laugh when we hear "If it's on the Internet, it must be true," but that's how students actually behave. We're getting better at finding. We've made little progress at evaluating.

It's really not Google's business to tell us what to believe. And we resist attempts at interference when it comes to second-guessing what we want to see--although search engines are paying attention to what we click and are influenced by our choices.  Which is why it becomes all the more important that we develop good investigative habits.

Spoiler Alert
I managed to find an answer I'm pretty sure is right, but there is still some conjecture involved. If you'd like to solve Russell's challenge, go ahead. Answers are easy to find, thanks to Google.  Here's Russell's blog, and some answers.  Did I/they get it right?

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