Since I began teaching reference, I have discouraged students from using Google for their treasure hunts for a variety of reasons, mostly because I know they already know how to search Google. As Google changes, though, my new reason for discouraging students from using Google is that their new attempts to personalize and socialize search results are leading away from “objective” understandings of a page’s quality*. For many reasons, this is not good for library use.

I was one of the early adopters of Google. It was refreshing after the cluttered pages of Yahoo and Lycos to see that simple expanse of white. As they perfected their algorithms, the searches got more and more precise. I knew I could get a balance of precision and recall that was satisfying to me. At some point, the search results began to get less and less satisfying. I could tell when they were messing with their algorithms because it would get harder to get good results with the same search strings I had been using all along. Here is one person’s example. I was getting irrelevant results like this all the time. (In fact, I just searched for “precision and recall” on Google and got pages of SEO pages, along with wikipedia and scholarly articles I don’t have access to at home without jumping through hoops.) Part of the reason for this is that Google has been “personalizing” my search results, sometimes based on where I am (though it thinks I am in a large city with the same name in another state, so those results are generally useless), sometimes based on what I have searched for previously.

Here are some pages focusing on changes at Google and why it might become a less useful search engine as it tries to become more social:

First, we’ll start with Google’s own explanations of the current changes to search: Notice the adorable hand-drawn graphics and quirky search examples. This is to distract you from what is really going on. While they are personalizing and socializing your results, they are also gathering information about you. Worse than that, though, they are limiting what you can find using their service. I honestly don’t mind trading some anonymous data that will be aggregated in order to get good search results, but I mind very much that their limited understanding of who I am will dictate what they show me. I’ve long been concerned about the effect of the Internet on the availability of information– I contend that the amount of information actually available to many of us goes down if we rely solely on the Internet/Web. I guess that’s a post for another day. An NPR article about Google’s new privacy plan. and These articles trace Google’s decline from the “simple white box and search results that made the search engine such a joy to use in the first place” to where it is now. (The discussion of the Olympics search reminded me of my futile attempt to use Google to find out where and when a conference happened last year so I could do a write-up on it.) This is just a quick article by one tech writer explaining why he has switched to Bing as his main search provider. Interestingly, the commenters support Google limiting its results to Google properties because they say it makes sense financially for Google.

Here is the way one organization is fighting the new Google: a browser extension for Firefox that compares search results from Google and from other search engines. “Don’t be evil” is Google’s motto, but like the author of this piece, I’m certain Google no longer lives by that motto. This is an interesting article from a different point of view… not that of a searcher who wants the best results, but that of a consultant to companies who want to rank higher on Google results. Notice that a key to having the best results is no longer being most relevant, most linked, or most popular, but being a member of Google’s network. In his example, Britney Spears’ Facebook page does not show up in search results for her, while her Google+ profile does show up. What happens to those companies who have their primary online presence on Facebook?

One point I’ve had about getting too comfortable with Google has been that when it inevitably goes South, the lazy search habits it encourages will keep us from being able to get good results out of other engines. Over-reliance on Google will also cause us to overlook quicker ways to get information, such as through an online directory or in a print resource. For individuals, this might not be a big deal, as long as you know you’re making that trade-off. For librarians, though, who are providing information for others, it’s important that we challenge ourselves and keep our skills up.

As for me, I’m switching back to the Firefox browser from Chrome, staying logged out of Google +, and using alternative search engines, including meta-search engines. I’m currently experimenting with Bing. On Safari. (And a commenter on one of the above articles mentioned Duck Duck Go.

Fight the Feed

*I don’t believe there are true objective measures of a page’s quality or relevance, but I do believe that commercial consideration is NOT a good measure of quality!

Search Patterns

This is a very interesting idea. Jon Udell is tracking his search process. He says “I’m less inclined to accept that some people are natural information hounds, and others aren’t, and that’s just the way of it. Innate talent clearly plays a role, but so does learned skill. What the learnable component of effective search may be, though, is very unclear. So I’ve begun to reflect on, and document, my own search habits in order to try to discover what it is that I’ve actually learned how to do.” He’s tracking his own search patterns at and would like for others to do the same. I’m intrigued and might play along. I like to think of myself as a good searcher. If it’s the kind of thing one can find on Google, I can find it. But maybe that’s not true. It would be interesting to submit my tactics to the scrutiny of all.

Via The Distance Librarian.

Better Searching, sans Google

Tips for improving search techniques from Steven Cohen at Library Stuff:

  1. Make online searching MANDATORY in library school. Make it a core course. I agree 100% with this. I took Internet Reference (which is required in the school library program) and had some exposure to online searching in regular reference. Yes, I think both should be required.
  2. Keep up with search engine news and how to use these tools to their maximum capabilities. Yes, this should be considered part of every librarian/researcher’s professional duty.
  3. Library school professors: Put a glass jar on your desk. Every time you say, “Google it”, put a dime in the jar (the same should go for your students) and take out an ad in Yahoo or Ask with the money collected over the course of the semester. Better yet, donate it to LII (although I don’t think that they can take private donations – Karen?). I detest both meanings of the phrase “Google it” on principle. As a response to a question, it’s rude. A better response would be “Where do you think you could find the answer to that question?” (In the context of library school.) As a throwaway comment about finding out more about a subject, it’s lazy. Which is part of Cohen’s original point, if I am reading correctly.(However, when I compare Ask or Yahoo’s search capabilities with Google’s, they come up wanting every time. (I went back and read all of my evaluations from my Internet Reference course just to be sure.) In Internet Reference class, we were essentially forbidden to use Google, which I fully support. However, it was often frustrating to pick at the other search engines, especially Ask, for a long time, when the site I was searching for would come up first in Google with the exact same search terms. I also found that the other engines were more likely to return other search engine result pages and keyword spam pages, something that seems to be a waste of time. That kind of thing is the reason I stopped even trying to use Ask Jeeves. It’s one thing to forego Google when there are better tools for the question, but quite another to forego Google just to forego Google. )
  4. Reference desk managers: Do the jar thing too, but buy your staff a book on how to search with the money collected. Either that or hire Gary Price to come to your library and teach search. Or, donate it to LII (Again, Karen?). A book would become useless very quickly (perhaps he was being ironic here), but a seminar would be a great idea.
  5. Do not make Google the default page at your reference workstations. If you are going to do this, at least use the advanced page. Shouldn’t the library’s databases be the default page?
  6. Needs assessment time. What’s more important: Working on that library MySpace account, posting pictures of your book collection on Flickr, or brushing up on your searching skills? Prioritize. This point seemed unneccessary. I would venture a guess that the people who are savvy enough to use flickr and myspace are already fairly accomplished Internet searches. However, this is just a guess and I could be wrong.
  7. Understand the invisible web and how it exists. Know about subject-specific engines and directories. Know the best person, home, and e-mail look-up tools. Agree. In fact, take the time to write up evaluations of different search tools (perhaps for a library wiki on effective searching- which could then be the default home page mentioned in point 5– or just for your own reference.)
  8. Use your reference book collection. Not all answers are found in the glorified results of a word or phrase search on ANY engine. But doesn’t the internets have everything?
  9. Don’t enable. Not only should we teach better searching skills to our colleagues and users, we should practice what we preach. Don’t have a Google search box on your library web page or blog. Don’t have canned Google searches on your web page or blog that lead to atrocious results. Interesting. I don’t usually follow links to other people’s search engine results anyway. I do my own search if I’m that interested.
  10. Don’t forget the importance of using the fee-based databases that your library (check that, your patrons) pays for. Remember that “free is as free does.” Perhaps the most important point of all. (And don’t forget, you pay for those databases, too.)

At first, I thought was going to disagree with many of these, but on a more careful reading, I realized I agreed with everything except for minor points on 4 and 6.I wanted to read the comments to see if my points have been duplicated (as I’m sure they have), but was unable to access them. Speaking of comments, I have enabled unregistered commenting (I hope) and hope not to be spammed out of my mind as a result.