Learning to Search

Jeremy Zawodny asks “how did you learn to search?”

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.

Like a lot of you, I’m among the best searchers of my non-geeky peers. Occasionally somebody will call or email and ask me to find something obscure. They outsource their searching to me.

I think I learned to search through a lot of practice and reading the manual. I suppose an analytical mind helps. I think a lot of casual searchers falter because they don’t visualize the results they’re looking for. Alpha searchers do this automatically. They think “if I wrote my target page, it would include this phrase” and search for that. I suppose it’s a bit like sports–visualizing success and all that.

It’s a really important skill, and our children’s generation will be natural searchers. Mostly I feel for my parents and my non-geekier peers. It sounds like an obvious truth, but being able to find stuff makes life way, way easier.


  1. There’s still the issue as to whether the results you find, though based on the topic you’re searching for, are correct and have value. I remember once doing a search for papers on the bubonic plague, and found a whole bunch of amateur sites on the topic with contradictory and wrong information. Just look at what blogs have done to google search results.

    Remember librarians? They were really good for this sort of thing. Their skills are just as important today, but needing to be applied to the web and internet.

  2. Gillian: Very true. Hopefully today’s teachers are emphasizing that the quality of information is more important than quantity or speed of retrieval.

    Andrea and sxKitten: I’m not sure. One way might be (and you’ve probably heard of it) Google Answers. I can’t imagine that the money’s all that good, though.

    If you were enterprising, you could start a blog that competed with that program. Call it http://www.searchforme.com or http://www.cantfindit.com or something, solicit people’s peculiar search requests, post the questions and answers and make money on ad revenue.

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