The Logic of Search Strings

Standard

Though it’s been a while since I last posted any, I’m still keeping an eye on my search strings. The longer I do this the more what I think I’m looking for changes. Now, rather than being amused by the sorts of things that Google (among other search engines) thinks I’m an expert on, I’m more interested in what the search strings say tell us about what people think a search engine does.

1. The direct Question
The direct question strings shows that a great number of people using the internet are under the impression that a search box itself is asking a question: what is it you want to know? What is your question for the magic eight ball internet? You can tell these kinds of users by the way they frame their search; it’s as if they believe someone living and breathing is going to see the question, understand it, and give them an answer. Generally speaking these search strings contain extra words, like “the”, “on”, “into”, and so forth.

DOES RID MEDICATION KILL BED BUGS
getting into library school
thunder sounds to download for students
articles on how to win a friend
peer review articles on masturbation
blog page by mazar.ca
photos with mastectomy

I think these strings are interesting to note. They are not wrong. Google understands what they mean. There’s just a level of search construction that librarians expect everyone to walk through that’s just not happening for these people. Is it hurting them? probably not. Is it wrong to think of the search box as a place to ask a question? I don’t think it is. But understanding that this may be the best and easiest way to come to grips with the internet may help librarians take a step closer to helping users find what they’re looking for.

2. Keywords, Boolean, and Traditional Searching
Some internet users still understand the way things used to be done; they build their searches based on keywords, they refer to people last, first name. These strings indicate that some users have taken a step closer to understanding how the search engine actually works, but sometimes their model is too much based on a controlled vocabulary OPAC rather than a free-association keyword algorithm they’re actually confronting.

trudeau, maggie
reference librarian versus google
young men plastic surgery
librarian first day
livejournal locking posts
new jersey bar exam blogs
faculty status difference academic status librarians
myopic world
history of library science
beta hormones blood levels
classification web comments

I think these are completely reasonable searches; given the way Google (or MSN, or Dogpile, or any other engine) functions, these terms will get users close to what they’re looking for if not exactly what they want. Short phrases, no superfluous words; these people may have noted Google’s attempts to correct people’s search strategies and have lopped off extra bits. If their search starts with a question, for instance, “Where can I find out more about how livejournal locked posts work?” These users have boiled it down to a few key words and dumped those into the search box instead. While librarians have spent eons trying to get students to understand their topic in terms of controlled vocabulary subject headings, perhaps we should instead focus on getting them to this level, to reducing a question into a set of terms likely to illicit the kind of results they want to see. For instance, “faculty status” and “academic status” are very specific terms, that, linked together, would narrow down documents to what the user is looking for; adding “librarian” helps to narrow that search down even further. Maybe this is the kind of information literacy training we should be going for?

3. The inexplicable

What have you learned about evaluations from doing the reading this week and working on these essays Anthing that you can brin

Every so often I get search strings like this. I’m not sure what to make of them. Sometimes it seems as though someone has just accidentally pasted something into the wrong window, which admitedly is completely fascinating for me. These little glimpses into people’s lives; sometimes it’s bits of text, like this one appears to be. Other times its chunks of an IM conversation or lines from an essay. There is something to be said for running searches like that; I used to find plagiarized essays doing that for a faculty member back in my Carleton days. But so far I haven’t seen anything that looks like a plagiarism check. If these searches are accidents, why does anyone ever get beyond the results page? Why click on a site and see where it went? Is this some kind of google game, drop in a random line of text and see what comes up? I’m intrigued in any case.

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