Internet Search: What Makes It Simple, Difficult or Impossible?

Every so often we've all had the experience of trying to find something that we just can't quite seem to nail down. You expect there's a web page out there somewhere in the billions of possible pages, but you just can't figure out what to do to make it pop to the top of the search results. Even more strangely, you've probably also had a frustrating moment of being unable to find something, then told a friend about it, only to have the perfect result show up when they did exactly the right query.

More than almost any other technology, search engines have transformed the way we do research: papers and results that were previously undiscoverable (or only painfully and laboriously discoverable) now have become simple and quick to locate. Where graduate students once slaved endlessly over a hot photocopier in library stacks, they can now run a search, locate the relevant papers, and all the papers those papers reference, and so on. The scholarship of research really IS different these days. It's not just simpler, but also broader and deeper. Given the same number of research hours, one can potentially reach much, much more.

Practicing search works! Like many expert behaviors, search is one that rewards skill-development, practice and attention. In our studies, we have shown that spending a modest amount of time learning the attendant skills of search pays off in much reduced search times and search accuracy.


Everything changes... constantly: Of course, a key thing to remember about web search is that both the contents of the web and what search engines can do to process that content are constantly under revision. What this means for you is that search is a skill like any other. It is useful for professionals to pay attention to new content resources as they come online (that is, accessible through search engines), watching for new search capabilities (such as the ability to search real-time streams for breaking news on current events), and new ways of viewing the results of searches (timeline views of search results). There are classes, information streams and resources available for staying on top of what's going on. To be the best possible searcher, you need to make time to track these new capabilities as well as understand the entailments of what's possible.

"On the face of it you'd think that searching on a modern search engine such as Google is a pretty simple and straightforward skill. And mostly, you'd be right. It's the exceptions that are interesting."

With the inexorable and rapid transformation of the world-wide web into a resource of incredible depth and breadth, it is required that professional researchers owe it to themselves to seek structured certification programs and stay in touch as new materials and new tools transform research problems from very difficult or impossible to quick and simple tasks by getting involved in a more centralized way through associations such as AIRS.

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