Informatic Engineering

[Warning: this post is far too lengthy and boring. I thought about segmenting it into separate posts and decided not to, on the grounds that, well, that would be long. Just skim through and note the salient points. Or just look at the pictures. Either way, if you’re reading this, you’re probably extremely bored anyway, in which case, this post is doing you a favour by filling time- approx. 30 seconds of listless scrolling…]

Why don’t we just scrap Search Engines and ask a Librarian instead?

This question was surmised by my learned colleague Oli, during a discussion on the merits (or lack thereof) of the most popular search engines currently available online. Of course, the workload would be unbearable, and stress levels would elevate to such an extent that the average life-span of a Librarian would decrease exponentially. I imagine waiting times for information retrieval would also surpass that of trying to book an appointment with your local GP.

But it is an interesting point to consider- the role of Librarians in a Googley World.

Effectively, Library workers are human search engines. Visitors to the Library pose us questions; we interpret their inquiry, sometimes offering alternatives to aid their search; we then instantly compute all of the avenues and possibilities available, based on our personal database of knowledge and experience; then we present an array of results and strategies, which the inquirer can choose to utilise, pursue or ignore.

However, despite the odd alter-egoes here & there (not to mention a penchant for dressing up) Librarians aren’t superheroes. They don’t have special powers. They need help too. Like everyone else, Librarians use search engines. And, like everyone else, I suspect most of them use Google.

Google has become common parlance for searching the internet. “Why don’t you Google it?” “I’ve just Googled…” etc. But is Google’s dominance of the search engine market justified? Are there any realistic alternatives?

Well, yes and no.

Yes, there are alternatives. But am I realistically going to use them? No, probably not. Like most people, I’m lazy.

Certainly, there are specialised search engines which undoubtedly suit the needs of niche groups better. But for general day-to-day internet searches (at least until the backlash comes) Google will remain the default choice. Which sadly reflects on the information society we live in. Can you imagine suggesting to a student that they go and browse the Encyclopaedia Britannica to answer their question? People want things instantly, and for most queries, search engines meet this need. And once you’ve discovered Google, why are you going to experiment with other sites? Information professionals undoubtedly find the science of information (and subsequent comparisons between search engines) fascinating/interesting/mildly diverting; but I suspect very few ordinary internet users are actually bothered by such matters.

Thankfully for the disinterested, when it comes to needing assistance with more detailed information searches, Librarians are at hand to step-in and offer valued wisdom. Libraries are houses of guidance for knowledge seekers. Worship us! (Or, at the very least, keep us open and staffed by professionals).

Anyway, muddled ranting over, now on to the week’s Things.

For my Search Engine Comparison, I entered Walthamstow into each of the big four’s boxes of truth, and then assessed the outcome:

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To be fair, each search engine brought back much of the same results- the key differences being in aesthetics and quirks. All of them highlighted key information sources about the town and local area, and a couple found this amazing news story about Brian Harvey.

For all you stats fans (geeks) out there, Google unsurprisingly won in terms of nominal retrievals:

  1. Google: 4.8m
  2. Yahoo: 611,000
  3. Bing: 595,000
  4. Ask Jeeves: n/a*

Google: Winner on stats, and winner on appearance for me- clear, tidy and refreshingly lacking in advertisements. Though, when you think about it, what does Google seriously expect me to do with 4.8 million results? There are good options to further your search, and the image gallery was substantial. However, as expressed before, I have a real problem with Google’s interface and interaction with keyboard controls. I hate the predictor as I type; it’s annoying and symptomatic of a world where nobody is required to think for themselves. I don’t like the way using the arrow keys renders you stuck in the list of results rather than scrolling the page. And I do get frustrated with the way Google identifies results based on popularity.

I’m also unhappy with the way Google is stalking me. It seems that exploiting my personal information isn’t enough to satisfy their own nefarious needs; now they seem determined to track my location and to let me know that they’re doing so. 6 weeks ago Big Brother Google told me I was in Camden. Today, it told me I’m in Tottenham. Am I the only person freaked out by this?

Yahoo: I’ve decided not to comment on Yahoo as a matter of principle, after noticing on the bottom of the results page that Yahoo is powered by Bing.

Bing: What a stupid name. Visually awful, with far too much blue text. Lots of advertising, including one titled: Walthamstow Cheap. That might well be the case, by I’m not happy with those connotations being so immediate. Good image selection.

Ask Jeeves: No thank you, I’d rather not. Two things attracted my attention with Ask. The first was “Might Jeeves suggest the Hackney Gazette”- erm, no, thank you. That would be in Hackney; clue’s in the search term, moron. Secondly, the link offering me search results from Excite, which proved a complete waste of time and clicking.

[*Jeeves wouldn’t tell me how many search results he generated. Whatever.]

In other Things:

  • I found a really good explanation of how search engines work on the Berkley guide (I admit it, I didn’t really understand the finer points of this issue).
  • Having perused the Search Engine List, I urge you to click on this to see Goo. Amazing.
  • I immediately assumed that Wolfram Alpha was evil, based solely on an irrational desire to add “& Hart” to the name. (Ok, so it wasn’t Buffy, but it was a good show and I enjoyed it, even though I never saw the final season, don’t tell me what happened!) I actually really like WA, particularly as I adore useless trivia. I rather self-indulgently searched for the 5th August 1983, and found that I was born on a Friday during a Waning Crescent Moon. Says it all really.
  • Have I missed the point of Dogpile & the Meta Search Engines? Okay, so it tells me some results were found exclusively on specific search engines. But so what? If I was carrying out research, I wouldn’t only use the list of results garnered from 1 search as the entire basis for my work. That would be dumb. Or maybe I’m being dumb? I suppose if Zuula and other Meta Engines are searching across a variety of search engines, some of which focus on material unobtainable by Google (such as social network sites) then I could potentially carry out my research all in one place in 1 go = easier for me? I think my brain is struggling to cope with all this information about finding information.
  • Google A Day was fun, but I became extremely frustrated with the answer input recognition; basically, unless you word your answer EXACTLY as needed, it tells you you’re wrong.
  • Lastly, here is my Search Story:
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One thought on “Informatic Engineering

  1. RMG says:

    Well having entered the esteemed Library profession before google (BG) (yes I am old) we did work without search engines, but now we just use them as a tool, and use them more effectively than our users do, and we know how to interpret results.
    There is so much stuff out there, so our job is to mediate and to enable users to find what they need. But also to understand both user behaviour and search engine behaviour, which is one reason for comparing the different engines and meta engines. It underlines the fact that not everything is online, and ebven if it is, results can vary.
    two jobs ago, I had users who always just used to say ‘it’s on the inn’ernet, inn’it’ and sometimes I just had to sigh and leave them to it after helping them as much as I could. I also remember telling an academic that a resource ‘was only free because we pay for it’ so we couldn’t just get subscriptions to everything online.
    So at least we understand how these things work, even if our users don’t always.

    Google will give varying results depending on if you are logged in, and on which versionyou use e.g. .uk will give different results from spanish or german google.

    And yes they make advertising revenue based on click throughs from adverts, so advertisers want to target appropriately. This is why I got adverts for Endnote on every single search I ever did at LSE! But then again this is what peopel are exepecting – it’s like the amazon ‘we thought you’d like this because you also bought’ option.

    Remind me not to spoil series 5 of Angel for you (I hate spoilers – got accidentally spolied on the ending of series 3 of the Wire when only on series 1. ARGHHHHHHHHHHHHH!!!!)

    Oh and I take exception with you. Librarians ARE superheroes! Don’t forget that knowledge is power, and that a lack of or wrong information can kill!

    Rowena 23 Things Team

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