Search Strings and Information Literacy

Search Strings and Information Literacy

I must admit, I started scanning my referer logs for search strings because a lot of them were pretty funny. I started posting them (and sending them to one of my non-blog-reading friends) because I thought they were funny.

“You could get funding for that,” my friend of mine said. I thought she was kidding.

But I’m starting to see the value of the pursuit (aside from pure enjoyment). A couple of days ago I was reading over the OCLC environmental scan. While there were lots of elements of the executive summary that were interesting and compelling, a couple of items on the same page, caught my eye. One: “Users DO know what they’re doing!” quoting an unnamed “industry pundit”. The summary reads: “surveys confirm that information consumers are pleased with the results of their online activites. In 2002, for example, Outsell, Inc. studied over 30,000 U.S. Internet information seekers and found that 78 percent of respondents said the open Web provides most of what they need.”

Do users know what they’re doing?

“Weird things to do at work”
“how to say i love you”

“mother can’t stay”

“you have to go to school to be a librarian”

We’ve learned from our own research that a library patron will be pleased with poor reference service as long as the librarian is “nice”. That niceness doesn’t just apply to people. You can have a “nice” interface and an “unnice” one as well. There is nothing less friendly than a search engine that gobbles up your query and spits back a goose egg. Sorry, it seems to say. Your question was just too stupid. While the OCLC scan notes that “satisfaction” with the internet is high among users, this doesn’t mean that it’s actually providing them with what they’re looking for. It doesn’t mean the user even feels that it does. I suspect what it means is that the user feels empowered; the user plugs in a question and something comes back out. It doesn’t mean he or she actually knows what to do, or how to get the best results. My short wander through the world of search strings has certainly taught me that.

Some users, of course, really do know what they’re doing:

“How to make love like” download file
(resume|resume|CV|vitae) 1991…2005 ~job ~wizard program~ mysql programming

But for the most part, what scanning search strings over time have taught me is that most users don’t understand what Google (or MSN, or yahoo, or the various other search engines) actually are. Or how they work.

“where does debbie travis live?”
“girls stripping in nightclubs”

“Emily: someday i hope u get the chance to live like u were dying 1/4 says: hey do u wanna do one thing today, like shopping, loopy”

“harvard slut diary”

While librarians have created and fueled this information literacy engine, aiming to teach users the difference between a keyword, a subject search, an academic journal and a blog, my search strings seem to indicate that many users have absolutely no clue. Full questions, with punctuation, are typical; short phrases describing what something is in their minds but not what it’s likely to be called are par for the course. These aren’t keywords or subjects. People are telling Google what they want to see, and Google’s algorithm gets them close enough. Google’s algorithm doesn’t require a user to understand the depths of information management and categorization. You can ask Google a question and Google will give you an answer.

Does the user know what they’re doing? I’d say no. They don’t understand the algorithms involved, but then again neither do I. What they do understand is that they can confront the clean, clear, friendly Google search screen and ask a question, and that they will get an answer, even if it’s not necessarily a good one. Isn’t this exactly what happens at the reference desk? User satisfaction comes from the sense of having been helped, that someone is there for them to lean on, that someone tried. Satisfaction is not necessarily dependent on the quality of the output.

So what do we do?

The OCLC environmental scan summary talks about the “twilight zone” of the internet, the chaos of documents and information, and how that frightens traditional librarians used to organized and carefully sorted stacks. It questions how libraries, as highly structured information spaces, can wade into the internet without imploding. To date it seems that our approach has been to try and bend the internet to our wills; we develop metadata systems to filter information back to us in predictable ways, we encourage students to learn about the broader and narrower terms, flip through the subject headings, be fearful of keywords and use them carefully. We try to impose order on the chaos. The internet is, after all, just another version of the information world that existed before. What Google has done is to take the order out of it. There is and there need be no real order to queries typed into Google. Type in a question, use punctuation, tell me what you’re looking for, in your words. The work of parsing that query, taking out the punctuation, removing excess words (and, I, the), trimming it down to a set of keywords and running the search on the database is done by the algorithm. Rather than trying to train the users, perhaps we should take a page from Google’s book and just train our systems better.

Not to say that information literacy is pointless. Information literacy is very important, but I think there are other ways to get there. Do we want users to be literate about subject headings, or literate in the ebb and flow of information around them? Embrace the chaos, or marshall it into the DDC?

Users don’t appear to understand that Google is a keyword-driven database system. When they speak to Google, they speak to the World Wide Web, that monster under the sea that inches up onto the shores in places and devours whatever it sees. That beast that shifts depending on the beholder, that grows larger with every passing second and may one day take over the world. It breathes in pictures, newspaper articles and bank statement information and coughs out ones and zeroes. It is information without knowing anything. Ask it a question and see which tentacle slithers up on the shore. Anything that translates that morass for you has got to be your friend. Helping students to communicate with the World Wide Web, both as a searcher and as a content provider, might be the greatest gift we can offer.

Much as I mock the strings, one of the things I need to remember is that information searching is a process, not necessarily a one time event. You can sit in front of a Google search all day and type in variations on a question. What I see might be a first try. Searching the internet is like drawing; you sketch out the general shape first, look at it, consider it, and start filling it details here and there. And if it doesn’t look like what you were expecting, there’s always another blank page underneath. No one’s keeping score. It doesn’t matter if you need to try 10 times before you find something you want. And maybe that’s why users as satisfied with their current internet searching; there’s no one peering over your shoulder watching you. You have all the time in the world to keep trying. And no matter what stupid questions you ask, it will always give you something in return. It tries. And really, who can ask for more?

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