If this review is late, it’s Tasha Bergson-Michelson’s fault. She’s got me compulsively clicking on every pixel of my Google search page, looking for hidden treasures.
We all search – a LOT, in this job – but do we think about HOW we search? That’s Tasha’s job. She’s a self-described “passionate search geek” who opened her presentation to the SLA-BayNet joint meeting with “My world is about learning what you search for, and how.” Since Google has, to quote legendary reference professor Terry Crowley, “drenched us all with a fire-hose of information,” its Search Education program is working to make making sense of all that information. Dan Russell, whom we visited at Google in 2011, and Tasha are at the forefront of this effort, introducing us to all the features of Google search that relatively few searchers know about or use. The site at http://www.google.com/insidesearch/searcheducation/ offers a variety of tools for getting the most out of these features, along with sample searches, self-paced lesson plans, and tests — even a Continuing Education certificate for the truly dedicated.
The way we in the profession talk about search both helps and hinders us: the jargon doesn’t translate. Things we get stoked about – Boolean logic, controlled vocabulary, stop words — are meaningless to most end-users. That’s why Tasha and Dan teach classes: it gives them shoulders to peek over, to see how people with basic skills do basic searches.
We tend to make our initial searches very specific, forgetting that every word counts and too much precision rules out partial answers that could lead us to better ones. Sometimes an informal search works best, as Tasha showed with the Stanford basketball song that goes “oooh-oooh-ooh.” Who’d think you could get a viable answer by entering “sports song oooh-oooh-ooh.” Try it! The song elected “Best Answer” at Ask.com, “Kernkraft 400 “ by Zonbuie Nation, has been taken down by the copyright owner, which may prove something, but it’s amazing how large the result set is.
Yes, this did remind me of the reference desk classic where the kid says “Mom wants to know what this song is” and hands the librarian a slip of paper on which Mom has written “dum-e-dum, dum DAH-de-dee-dum,” – but it worked. And Tasha addressed the other ref-desk classic, “I don’t remember the title or author, but the cover was pink.” Under the “search tools” button (“all the good stuff is hiding under this button,” she says) in Image Search is an “any color” button. This pulls down to give a click-able choice of colors, so when you enter the word “book” and whatever the patron does remember of the subject – Anglo-Saxon art, in her example – and filter by color, this will limit the results to a less overwhelming number. She also showed us how to use background color for implied context: where searching for SF Giants images brings up the predictable orange and black, filtering for green gives you action shots on the green field.
Learning how to read search results productively is a skill in itself. A first question, especially a more formal one, can bring in results that look far off the point – but much can be learned from them: better key words to use, the type of sites that seem to have the best answers, criteria to filter by. One of the most interesting experiments Tasha mentioned on watching people search is one she’s doing with Diane Sands of the California Academy of Sciences, whose cartoons and drawings (and brownie recipe) have been featured on this newsletter (she also has a book out, Hot From the Toaster.) The team is encouraging searchers to draw their queries, bypassing words altogether. The results have been “eye-opening, sometimes stunning.” I’d love to hear more about this – perhaps another meeting topic?
The main take-home lesson was “Know your options,” In Tasha’s case, that meant exhaustively experimenting with everything on the Google search page, especially the wonders hidden under that magical search button. For us, it can be one-click easy:
http://www.google.com/insidesearch/searcheducation will get you to the Power Search class, live training opportunities, and the addictive “Google-a-day” trivia search challenge.
Thanks go to Information Express for their generous sponsorship of this event.
Photo by Tricia Soto