Or, put another way, "Who taught you to search?"

Me, Speaking with Translator Most of us using the web today were never taught how to search effectively. I've known this for some time now, but it has really started to sink in this year.

Earlier this year I visited Yahoo! Japan to participate in a Search Symposium they hosted. While there, I had a chance to give a presentation (translator and all!) of my own about some of the cool stuff we'd been doing at Yahoo! Inc.

Thumbs Up! The day was very informative and fun for the folks who attended, including many students, hackers, and aspiring business folks. But when it was over and I was headed back to California a few days later, I couldn't get one presentation out of my head.

One of Yahoo! Japan's long-time surfers presented a search tutorial. Starting from ground zero, he explained how indexing the web works (at a high level), how search engines work, strategies for searching, advanced query syntax and operators, etc. He was teaching the audience how to search.

That caused me to think back a couple years to when I was working on some software that analyzed query logs for Yahoo! Search. I noticed over and over that, as a human, I could easily spot query patterns (over the course of a session) that clearly indicated someone was having trouble.

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.

Group Discussion 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?

Posted by jzawodn at September 06, 2005 09:14 PM

Reader Comments
# Jesse Andrews said:

Sounds like having a screencast/podcast would be good idea. (although pointing users to it via a link like - "yahoo search training" - not screencast of search techniques.

on September 6, 2005 10:14 PM
# Mike said:

Maybe Yahoo needs Clippy?

on September 6, 2005 10:16 PM
# James Kew said:

In an ideal world, search engines would intuit what users are looking for without users needing education.

Matt Cutt's post on this might be relevant?

on September 6, 2005 10:48 PM
# Gen Kanai said:

Definitely education and training, especially for advanced searching, is lacking for all search engines. It's amazing what's possible with advanced search queries, but we all know that only a tiny fraction of users understand how that works.

That said, what about a user experience where (and this would have to be approved by the user) the search engine might interpret a few searches in a row from the same user and present to the user a query that might be closer to what s/he is looking for? I realize that there's a calculation cost, but if the results are closer to what s/he wants, they might be delighted to have a "recommended" query presented to them based on previous queries.

Isn't this what the major search engines are trying to do by interpreting search histories and finding ways to get users to register?

on September 6, 2005 10:55 PM
# Greg Linden said:

Back in March 2005, A9 CEO Udi Manber said something similar at PC Forum: "People will learn to use search better but have to invest the thinking -- we are not in the mind reading business."

I'm not sure this is a promising direction though. I think any attempt to require more work from users is likely to fail. People want it quick and easy.

I agree more with Marissa Mayer at Google who, at the same event, said, "Google's goal isn't to force users to have to think about search ... One of the Google principles is that it your mother can't figure out how to use a feature, it shouldn't be released."

on September 6, 2005 11:05 PM
# Joe Beaulaurier said:

This, http://dir.yahoo.com/Computers_and_Internet/Internet/World_Wide_Web/Searching_the_Web/How_to_Search_the_Web , would indicate that not a lot of schools have this in their curriculum.

on September 7, 2005 07:23 AM
# Will Cox said:

A: the library

I learned how to find things in the library. They told us how to look for things in the card catalog. At home, I found things in the encyclopedia and dictionary, and applied this experience when looking for things in the library. Later, I honed these skills while working the research desk in college.

It's not just knowing how something is organized, but knowing the right question to ask, and the right place to look for the answer.

on September 7, 2005 09:28 AM
# Michelle Hedstrom said:

I taught computers for 4th-8th graders for a couple of years (stopped in June), and before the kids would start doing any research on anything using the Internet I'd teach them not only some searching basics, but how to determine if the results they got back were clickworthy. But yeah, most teachers don't bother with that, and instead deem it too difficult for the kids to use the Internet to search on. Kids are smarter than people give them credit for, considering the fact that I had 4th graders who could tell their results were wrong.

on September 7, 2005 09:56 AM
# Chris K said:

I learned how to search from Yahoo back in the day.

When they first started the search engine, I remember being really frustrated. I knew that every day new content was being created for the web, but I could not ever easily find what I was looking for.

Then one day I noticed a new link on the yahoo page that had a short paragraph on different syntax you could use to help your results. Since then, I have been a search machine.

and you are right..someone needs to be teaching this. The yahoo advanced search feature is killer, and can help people out, but maybe the word "advanced" scares them off? I dunno.

But what I do know is that people will tell me, "Chris, I have looked for this answer for hours, no one has written about it," and with them there, I can change up the query a bit, and find what they are looking for.

Knowledge is power, but knowing how to aquire knowledge is priceless.

Maybe that's why I am so into business intelligence.

on September 7, 2005 01:46 PM
# GoodBytes said:

At the very beginning, while I was learning Internet, I used the directory links. Later, as my needs grew, I started to use the search function, mostly by using common sense. Except from some occasional tips on searching that I encountered accidentaly by surfing the Net, I never had a "formal" education or guides related to search engines.

Luckily, I managed to find everything I needed so far (or pretended it isn't there when I couldn't fine it). :-)

on September 7, 2005 07:05 PM
# Grasshoppermind said:

Jeremy, I assume that a program could also easily spot bad query patterns during a session and offer a link to some on-line assistance?

This sounds like a great feature (as long as you could turn it off in your preferences, the image of *clippy* looms horribly in my minds eye)

on September 8, 2005 09:19 AM
# Spataro said:

Here, at IusSeek.com, users search for italian laws and cases.

On query logs we found 70% of similar errors. So, on keywords, we wrote help for whom does errors after the first one.

In italian, it's simple, no podcasting, chat, emploees.
Sorry for my english.
worst error: no space between words

on September 8, 2005 11:17 PM
# Phil Bradley said:

I've been teaching people how to search the internet since 1994. This can be anything from a quick one hour session to an entire 4 day course. Most of the people that I train have a library background, but even then, they quite often have never used anything other than Google - and the basic search function at that.

It's depressing to see that people have very low expectations of what search engines can do - many people still just put in a bunch of words and hope that something will come up. They are more than delighted when I actually point out to them that there is a lot more available than they'd previously realised.

I also run 'quick tip' sessions, and these prove very popular, so, as you point out, even 10 minutes is better than nothing. I think the problem is multifaceted. Most people (who don't have a library background) have absolutely no concept of what is possible when it comes to searching, so they never try to find out. Librarians like all the advanced features you get with traditional online services, cannot immediately see them with web search engines so don't bother to look. Search engines themselves are very poor on this - some don't even have help pages or cheatsheets to tell you what is possible.

Search engine producers could do a great deal more than they are at the moment in this area, in terms of software, improved search functionality, offering classes and just making people aware of what can be done!

(Sorry for the length of this.. it's a subject I feel strongly about, and that didn't even scratch the surface!)

on September 9, 2005 01:20 AM
# Stephen Green said:

This has been a problem in search since the beginning. I remember my father complaining that people didn't know how to run searches when he was writing IR systems for the Canadian Government in the 70s.

I think the problem is that in order to be a good searcher, one needs to understand how boolean operators work, or, if you prefer, how set arithmetic works. This just seems to be beyond the vast majority of people.

There is a fair number of papers in the Information Retrieval world that have the following pattern: We've developed a UI that will finally allow normal people to write boolean queries! Here is our idea: <idea>. Now, let's see how people do with it. Oh, it didn't make any difference.

on September 14, 2005 07:41 AM
# Laura said:

Most librarians, public and academic, are quite happy to show someone how to search, search better, use a subscription database search instead, etc. A good many of them offer formal classes as well.

on September 14, 2005 08:39 AM
# Jim Stroud said:

You nailed it when you said, "I think education and training are that missing link." This is why I think my training guides (1st issue focused on Yahoo's "secret" search commands) are becoming popular. I not only show recruiters how to search, but teach them how to think as a researcher as well.

on September 14, 2005 07:00 PM
# Personal Injury Lawyer Warren Redlich said:

I like to think of searching this way:
Think about the topic you're searching for ...
Think about what words are likely to appear in relevant documents, and that also unlikely to appear in irrelevant documents.


on September 19, 2005 08:42 PM
# Uncover China said:

I think the way of searching needs to be developed on the web. Alot of the results aren't specific to the actual search terms - would love to see a site that can deliver what I'm looking for...

on October 19, 2005 10:07 PM
# Lelean Crafton said:

Use of search engines and techniques: Directed instruction is definitely needed for the older generation of which I am a member. We were not born with a mouse or touch pad clutched within our fists and find the going tough.

on October 30, 2005 05:07 PM
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