Jeremy Asks: How Do You Learn to Search?

Last night at a book event at Books Inc in Mountain View, a fellow asked me a question that made me think – in short, he asked why there was so much useless information on the web. Put another way, he was expressing frustration with search results – so…

Last night at a book event at Books Inc in Mountain View, a fellow asked me a question that made me think – in short, he asked why there was so much useless information on the web. Put another way, he was expressing frustration with search results – so often we can’t find what we are looking for. I responded that – while it’s possible he might not like this answer – we as users of search need to get better at searching. And by that I don’t mean smarter about how to use advanced features, or how to find the perfect query, but rather at critical thinking, at reviewing and critiquing a set of results, learning from what is and is not there, and refining our searches as a result. And that the only way that is going to happen is if our educational system values critical thinking skills over rote testing.

Today as I was waiting between interminable radio interviews (yes, I am being a cranky author now, after all, I got up at 3.30 am, I’m allowed), I read this post from Jeremy. From it:

….I wished that someone could have been watching the query stream and stopped the user to say “hey, I see what you’re trying to find…. try this instead.” I felt like there was a missing link.

I think education and training are that missing link.

We search engines try to make the world look all simple, uniform, and tidy. There’s a little text box you type into and a button you can hit to get what you want back. Except that it doesn’t always work that way. Many times people don’t find what they need on the first try or two. But they don’t know where to go next, how to refine a query, or what their options are. There’s no librarian to help. Few of them will ever see our Advanced Search page or realize they can restrict searches to a subset of languages.

The question I started this ramble with is largely rhetorical, since I know that the vast majority of folks have never been “trained” to search in any way. But I suspect many would benefit from even 10-15 minutes of education.

Are schools handling this yet? Or do they mostly assume that the search box is self-explanatory?

It made me think – perhaps it is just a matter of some simple training. Or maybe it’s a bit of both, as the more one learns how to search, the more pointers one gets, the more one might develop critical thinking skills essential to good searching. I wonder, is there an opportunity there somewhere?

In any case, it sure would be cool to watch as master searchers went on journeys of discovery and explorations. I wrote about this in the book, referencing V. Bush’s Memex as the basic principle. … OK, back to the radio now…

Gary on this….

8 thoughts on “Jeremy Asks: How Do You Learn to Search?”

  1. I think searching is a behavior that involves learning how to think in something like SQL.

    Interestingly, my 12-year old daughter, who’s had a computer since she was two and has been on the net (supervised, natch) for at least 5 years, instinctively creates excellent Google queries, formed not as questions, but as a series of specific terms aimed at limiting and focusing the search results.

    Nobody taught her that specifically, but because she uses search a lot and because younger minds find it easier to learn new behaviors, she’s adapted her approach to search to favor successful results.

    Thus, a person unschooled in search might start with a broad term, such as “civil war” – because that’s the way we used to search for things in books and catalogs – she already knows to think a bit before hitting send to identify much more specific search terms likely to approach unique for what she needs: “bloodiest battle civil war”

    And it’s not just parental pride talking here – I’ve seen her with friends gathered around the computer, collaborating to identify the best search terms for the problem at hand. It’s not a subject in the curriculum, but kids are learning how to search.

  2. It’s true, you see Google Answers researchers do querying that is slightly different, but often far more effective, than what the ordinary person like me does. I don’t know how they learnt it.

    Ultimately, the search engine should be good enough to do the search without you needing to educate yourself. Bladam posted about how Google was off the mark in creating blog search. Users specifically search for blogs when they need a particular type of content, so one day the search engines should be intelligent enough to work that out without us pre-selecting blog search.

  3. Being a librarian (sometimes even a cranky one, for which I hope I’m forgiven just as John is for enduring interminable interviews), I celebrate the irony in this thread. Libraries and librarians have been muttering about this issue for quite some time, say, at least since the days of Gopher and the like. My personal, knee-jerk take is mildly fascist: students ought to be taught the rigors of Boolean operations from about second grade. But I would settle for ten to fifteen minutes per searcher, too. I have a few more responsible thoughts about the parameters of search, too. For one, the notion that “there is so much useless information on the web” is too sweeping. Granted, there are lots of worthless bytes, but it has been the “so much” aspect of the web that drives its purported value as an engine of democracy, for instance. Particular sites or database records may be useless, but only in the context of particular queries for which the searcher has particular desired results in mind. It’s a mistake, in other words, to expect the web as it has evolved by now to operate exactly like a perfectly useful reference book.Related to this is the notion that “the search engine should be good enough to do the search without you needing to educate yourself.” Why settle for any degree of mediation, be it a print encyclopedia, a librarian, a Google researcher, or a search engine? We seem to desire mediation, which we presently conceive as technology, I suppose. Were this not the case, shouldn’t we prefer never to have to search at all? Stated another way, one day the search engines should be intelligent enough to anticipate and preempt (or resolve) the information need.

  4. Dear John,
    I was at the book talk last night at Books,Inc. and wanted to ask so many questions about where and how the library and other related information professions fit in the world of search. I think this is a marriage waiting to happen – the power of search tools plus the knowledge base of information organization could be the next great thing. I work for RLG a nonprofit organization that supports researchers and learners worldwide by expanding access to research materials held in libraries, archives and museums.

    Check out our website at and for some real fun, check out and do a search on “immortality”. We could have saved you time and possibly taken you down avenues you never dreamed of.


  5. There are national and state standards for both teachers and students for tech literacy (which would include internet searching). Here is just one:

    From the California Commission on Teacher Credentialing: Standard 9: Using Computer Based Technology in the Classroom – “Standard 9 (h) Each candidate demonstrates competence in the use of electronic research tools and the ability to assess the authenticity, reliability, and bias of the data gathered.”

    Of course the question is, what is “competence”? I am the technology coordinator in Stanford’s Teacher Education Program (STEP) and just yesterday, I attended a free one hour presentation by Nancy Blachman author of the Google Guide ( to increase my own search literacy. It was more than 10 or 15 minutes, but it gave me more than just a few concrete skills, it gave me the confidence that I can find some help about searching, just by searching.

  6. There’s a difference between the ability to search effectively and the ability to analyse the results. A skilled searcher can lead you to water but can’t make you think.

    Developing critical faculties and command of language is crucial and, in my view, study of the humanities is a too often neglected discipline. If a few more people developing web 2.0 were armed with a broad appreciation of language, history and culture then we wont repeat 1999.

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