OK, maybe this isn’t a problem with Google so much as it is a problem with the idea that effective searching can be done via a single field (mind you, Google did seem to start us down this path.) As I work through my online search course this semester, I am spending a lot of time reflecting on how I think about how I search and it occurred to me today that one of the biggest problems people have with searching is that they only consider one perspective of the information need in question. When one is searching for information there are multiple perspectives at play: the searcher’s (you), the author’s (of the article or web page or…), and the indexer’s. It is not a hard leap to understand that every searcher and author will use different words to describe the same idea. Each specific searcher and author might even describe the same concept differently at different times. But who is this indexer?
Depending on what is being searched, there is a third set of words that are used to describe the items that are being searched. This is called the metadata, or the data about the data. In an online database, there are folks who spend their lives developing intricate vocabularies to describe the knowledge that they are curating. Books are often described using the Library of Congress Subject Headings. Web pages have hidden keywords in their headers (that one doesn’t see when loading the page) that describes the content of the page. Blog posts, like mine, or social bookmarking sites have very personal sets of tags that describe each item. If one is to be effective in searching a set of items, one needs to know what words are used to describe those items in the metadata.
Think about the following information need. A person’s cat has fleas and they need to find an effective way of eliminating the problem. Some searchers would go to Google and type, “My cat has fleas.” This search could come up with any number of hits about flea markets, ukulele tuning, CAT scans, and maybe pet parasites. By thinking about what terms others might use to describe cats and fleas and by being more specific about why the information is needed (to rid the cat of fleas), a much more effective search can be built. From what I see, though, this pause happens rarely.
So, next time you approach a search bar, STOP. Consider the people writing the articles that you are looking for. Consider the people that are describing the information you need. Then construct your search term.