Last night an old friend who runs a small software company confessed a secret. When he and his staff answer technical questions for clients, they are often "only" searching Google. At one point, he even asked a client: "Do you really want us to search Google for you at $100/hour?" Yes, in fact they did. My friend thought that was crazy. I suggested that it's not as crazy as it sounds. Effective search depends on reservoirs of tacit knowledge and unconscious skill. Some people possess much deeper reservoirs, and/or can tap into them more effectively, than others. That makes them valuable.
Lately, though, I'm less inclined to accept that some people are natural information hounds, and others aren't, and that's just the way of it. Innate talent clearly plays a role, but so does learned skill. What the learnable component of effective search may be, though, is very unclear. So I've begun to reflect on, and document, my own search habits in order to try to discover what it is that I've actually learned how to do.
Here's an example from an item back in August:
I knew the title of the talk I wanted to cite: The (Real) State of the Union: Atlantic Monthly Panel. But it took a while to find it on the site. My search strategy went like so:
query outcome state union fail state of the union fail "state of the union" fail atlantic succeed
Should've let Google do it, maybe, but in any case I found my way to the home page for the event. I was seeking two facts. First, the name of the woman whose 9-minute segment of the hour-and-a-half panel impressed me. Second, the timecodes for that segment. The event page provides neither.
It wasn't easy to find the speaker's name. Here was the search strategy:
action outcome listen to podcast intro partial success (sounds like Shannon Branley or Brantley or Bradlee, with the Numerica Foundation) google query: shannon branlee fail google query: numerica foundation fail google query: ted halstead (also mentioned in connection with the foundation) partial success (refine query to New America Foundation) google query: new america foundation partial success (found the organization) new america foundation query: shannon success (it's Shannon Brownlee)
You can see some patterns emerging from the fog: exact phrase search, the lateral maneuver from Shannon Branlee to Ted Halstead. There are a lot more of these patterns needing to be codified, but first we need to collect more examples of articulated search strategies. So I plan to catalog mine here and would love to be able to find yours here.
Admittedly it's hard to capture these examples. We're always in a hurry to find what we're looking for, and when we do, the strategy that we hauled up from the unconscious depths sinks right back down. But if we could capture and share some of these examples, it'd be really useful.
A while ago I ran into a beautiful example that I failed to capture, and now I'm kicking myself. It went something like this:
|search Google for some term||fail|
|visit a known example URL in the same domain that items matching the failed query would be in||partial success: discover alternate search terms|
|try alternate search terms||fail|
|query del.icio.us for the example URL||partial success: discover tags, assigned by domain insiders, which differ from tags I had assigned as a domain outsider|
|use one those tags as a Google search term||success|
Next time something like that happens, you can bet that I'll freeze-dry the example and pin it down in my collection box.
Former URL: http://weblog.infoworld.com/udell/2006/12/04.html#a1571