Beyond Google

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I gave a lecture this week on search & analytics to students on the online Petroleum Data Management course at Robert Gordon University. Some excellent discussions, debate, questions and a thoroughly enjoyable session with knowledgeable students mostly in full time employment from around the world.

My topic was ‘Beyond the Search Box and Ten Blue Links’. How a new generation of search tools are emerging in the workplace and challenging the cosy search ‘habitus’ we are used to. These are taking search from simply remembering (retrieving information) up Bloom’s taxonomy to higher levels of cognitive ‘human-like’ tasks such as comparing, contrasting, summarizing and predicting. I also presented some practical examples of work task specific search tools and use cases in the Oil and Gas Industry.

Internet search engines like Google have been (and are) tremendously successful – a social phenomenon. They have probably become an epistemology for some tasks ‘how we come to know things‘ covered in my previous posts last year. However, ranking tends to be popularity based so some knowledge may be hidden by its obscurity and despite people finding & discovering relevant and useful information, they may be limited by their own knowledge of keywords to enter into the search box. In some research I conducted with geoscientists published in peer reviewed journals back in 2014  some issues with Internet Searching with tools like Google were highlighted:

“Problem I have with Google is choosing right selection of words to find something” “With analogues you don’t know what terms to query on because you don’t know what they are” “I use Google as an exploratory tool. Some things difficult to find in Google” “How do I know I have really found the most relevant?”

With exploratory search task goals there is not a single correct answer (like Lookup/known item search task goals) – the user is learning with awareness of information changing their information needs which are dynamic. That means that a user can often find plenty of useful relevant material on the first few search results pages and be ‘obliviously satisfied’ because they are unaware of the critical (perhaps even more game-changing) information they failed to find.

Some of my previous published research supported this, showing there was no relationship between ‘user satisfaction’ and how well users actually performed exploratory search tasks, using standard ‘Google-like’ search tools.

Any user interface is effectively a theory – what we think is the best way to present search results. The Internet Search Engine Google-Like ‘search box and ten blue links’ seems pretty efficient to meet certain search task goals. However, for exploratory searching in the workplace and meeting the needs of subject matter experts in organizations for specific tasks we may need to think ‘outside the box’. There has been significant and ongoing research into exploratory search user interfaces.

As one research participant (a subject matter expert in geoscience) commented about search results that were ranked by traditional frequency/popularity methods – “relevant but not interesting’. Perhaps for some subject matter experts in some tasks they really want to be shown something they don’t already know. Whilst it is arguably impossible for a technology system to ‘know’ what someone may always find surprising, some techniques have been proven to be more likely to surface these than others through content driven algorithmic prompts.

So perhaps we need to move beyond relevance in some situations in the workplace to what is useful. According to John Maeda in the laws of simplicity, ‘simplicity is about subtracting the obvious and leaving the meaningful’.

Finally, beyond the ‘search box and ten blue links’ means more than user interface design and technology. The literacy of the searcher is likely to be key for exploratory search. Not just query formulation but their metacognitive processes of planning, monitoring and reflecting as they search. Some commentators describe search as one where if you get your content organized and your technology right ‘search will take care of itself‘. Perhaps for the very simple lookup/known item search goals, but highly unlikely for exploratory search – it is a philosophy that taken to its conclusion – denies human agency in the information search process. The evidence points to search literacy as being key for exploratory search tasks in the workplace.

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