Info Chaos or Virtual Card Catalogue?

Info Chaos or Virtual Card Catalogue?

Every time I sit down and sort through my running list of search strings that bring folks to my website, I find myself saying the same things over and over again. From my experience collecting and interpreting search strings, it appears that people do not use Google as a search engine in the traditional sense; they use it as a reference librarian, a trusted friend, a knowledgeable teacher, a salesperson. And more and more I’m starting to wonder if they’re using it as a card catalogue as well. Both human and not human; what are the implications?

To date I have been reading an anarchist streak into search strings I gather; maybe I’ve been wrong to do that. My image of the internet and internet search engines is of a chaotic and dynamic place; there is no order on the internet, and the only way Google finds anything is because it remembers text and has a wonderful ranking algorithm for keyword searches. But have I been wrong to impose my perception of the internet on the people who serendipitously find my website? Can you see the echo of traditional library organizational method in search strings? Do other people see far more order in the void than I imagine they do?

“find out who someone is using xanga name”
A hopeful hacker seeking to out a high school rival, no doubt. I’m fairly certain that it is completely impossible to determine “real life” identity through a username issued by a weblogging platform, but an interesting question to set to Google. What is it you want to do today? I want to humiliate this girl at my school, can you help me?

This is I thin not a keyword search. The language is too complete. I don’t think there’s any chaos in this user’s mind when approaching the internet; only a sense that Google has the answer to most questions, Google knows how to do things. So all we need to do is tell it what we want to do. Google is our gossipy, knowledgeable friend.

“when was Dalton Mcginty born”
Also direct question. If you think about this as a keyword search, it’s a dismal failure. But this string clearly supports my contention that the concept of keyword searching is becoming increasingly foreign for internet users. But did this person imagine that Google would give them a straight reference answer? This is a classic reference question, something any reference librarian could answer with ease.

“should gays not be allowed to teach in public schools”
A moral question set to Google, in all the right words for spoken language barring the question mark. But this isn’t a question anyone would ask at a reference desk; this is a question for a minister, for a political leader, for members of the community, for an activist or a parent. Which is an interesting point. Talking to Google isn’t exactly like talking to a librarian; talking to Google is talking to the internet, which is increasingly a metaphor for the community or society rather than the library. So rather than a reference question, this is a question for the community, for Everyman. Google as spokesperson for society in general. I wonder how they would feel about that.

“Where Park Vespa”
Where can I park a vespa? This user has taken a stab at distilling a question into a set of terms, i.e., trying to talk “computer” to the computer, but has apparently not taken that necessary step away from the question itself and has merely removed a few of the least important words. Google trains us to do that by telling us what words are automatically removed from a search. That function, telling you which words were excluded, seems to be an effective teaching mechanism, a good reminder that Google is a machine, and its results are not veted by a human being. But where is this user on my schema? Partway between asking a question and typing in some keywords.

” pros of keeping a diary”
What are you looking for? It’s strings like this one that make me wonder if I’m being too anarchistic in my general theory that everyone sees the internet as a free-for-all; is it possible that people believe that the internet is hyper-indexed? That there are warehouses full of cataloguers putting pages into firm categories for their benefit? Portal directories like Yahoo! certainly gave that impression, at least years ago when its front page consisted of a set of general categories for us to browse through. Someone was organizing the place. Someone was making sure I could find everything about diaries, pros and cons. Is the directory image of the internet still current?

“xanga that are restricted from schools”
What are we more comfortable with; the hyper-organization that has for years defined the way we interact with information, or the explosive anarchy that reigns on the internet? Does the Google search box give us, as a culture at large, a sense of organization? Is there a category for Xanga, and then a category for restricted Xanga? At this point I realize that seeing only the search terms is not enough. I don’t know what the user was expecting to see; would it be a list of urls as decreed by someone, a web page discussing the xanga pages that schools regularly omit from their viewable pages, or merely a google results page of the profane xanga journals?

Do people believe that Google organizes the internet, or that Google leads us to someone who might have taken a stab at it? Does the internet have a brain? Is that brain the search engine?

“librarian computer person who cares”
Just call out my name…and you know wherever I am…I’ll come running…

“articles by Barbara Amiel”
Is this a proper keyword search, looking for an index page that has the words “articles by Barbara Amiel” on it? Somehow I feel it isn’t. Note the capitalization. To me this is a classic reference question search: “I’m looking for articles by Barbara Amiel”, as if the internet is sorted by type (article) and then by author.

“essay on diary writing”
The perfect support for the Barbara Amiel search, and one I’ve seen a few times before. Search by type (essay) and subject. “by”, “on”, these words are clearly supposed to have meaning to the search. This is like switching the toggle between author and subject searching, moving from one bank of card catalogues to another. Is there something very basic about the way the card catalogue functioned that is found its way so deep inside the psyche of North American culture that people are still constructing queries around its concepts?

“Salman Rushdie censorship suppresses people’s opinions”
So, what’s going on with a string like this? Is it a search for a headline? Salman Rushdie: Censorship Supresses People’s Opinions A bit obvious perhaps, but possible. Where the other strings prior to this one seem to be a search for a thing, people grasping to define the subject of their search, something like this seems like a copy/paste line, looking, for instance, for a news article that the user has quoted but not cited. Otherwise it’s searching for a statement, an opinion, an interpretation of a situation. In some ways this feels like the kind of search you would try in a proprietary database, looking for a title of an article. Is it better to see is as a title search, or a keyword search? Is it an a query for an automated system, or is this the kind of question the card catalogue would have handed just as well?

“disadvantages of living in England”
This could almost be a subject heading, if you squint. England, disadvantages of living in. Is this evidence of an understanding of complete organization, or complete free-for-all on the internet?

“Keeping Everyting in the Loop Using Blogs and Wikis To Communicate Inside and Outside of the Library”
Again: title search? The capitalization here becomes a big clue. If it were a subject search or a free keyword search, surely the user would not have typed the capitals. This person is looking for The Serious Thing With a Name. What if people see Google as an OPAC the way it should have been; a database system that catalogued every title, including webpages, articles, and chapter titles?

“Bathroom AND Guelph”
Well, golly gee, an honest-to-goodness Boolean query. Sometimes people seem to forget that they’re talking to a machine, but here we see someone fully aware of the machine-ness of the system, talking to it the way one should in a proper keyword database. More knowledge than is strictly required, as it turns out, but it shows that all those years of bibliographic instruction did in fact go somewhere other than in one ear and out the other.

“blog, story, diary”
My immediate guess at this one is that this is supposed to be a Boolean OR query, though goodness can you imagine the results pages something like that would generate. I’m particularly intrigued by the fact that two of these words are pseudonyms of a sort while the other is something completely different. Still, this kind of search brings me back to the chaos of the keyword search, the internet at large out there, untrammeled and untamed. Words thrown into the void, testing to see what sort of echo will come back.

” diary keeping-a-diary”
Diary, Keeping a Diary. Could have come right out of the DDC schedules, really. I can almost see the scope note. This search is so traditional, so card catalogue, it makes me shiver. I can’t believe I haven’t noticed this kind of trend before. Look at the hyphens; those were user-inputted. This is the farthest thing from a keyword search there is. This person isn’t looking for instances of the term “keeping-a-diary”. This user is guessing that “keeping-a-diary” is some form of sub-classification for “Diary”. This search has actually been parsed; the subject is diary-keeping, and this is how the subject heading should break down, as the user sees it. In this person’s world, the internet is an organized place. Google is just the interface of choice to get to it. Google is just the card catalogue.

I’m not sure where I’ve been lead to through the strings this week. But we know that if people understand the structure of a system, they can more easily construct a query and find exactly what they’re looking for. What does the internet look like? Does it help the libraries if users see the internet through the metaphor of the library?

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