A blog about search, search skills, teaching search, learning how to search, learning how to use Google effectively, learning how to do research. It also covers a good deal of sensemaking and information foraging.
Tuesday, November 30, 2010
Learning as you search along: Why learn-as-you-search is so important
Regular reader J writes...
I had a mosquito bite that began oozing a clear-yellow fluid that became crusted. I began searching for: [ yellow discharge insect bite ] and got a lot of low-quality results - plenty of generic info from, for example, first aid kit distributors, all of which appeared to be paraphrased from similar original sources. None of it was really helpful. Some sources mentioned that the discharge might be indicative of infection, but the discharge was only mentioned in passing in any case. I decided to rephrase, and upon searching for: [ crusty yellow mosquito bite ] one of the top results mentioned something called "impetigo". I immediately did a search for: [ impetigo ] and came up with many high-quality results that appeared to be written by experts. I found articles written by people who called themselves doctors that contained detailed descriptions.
It turns out that impetigo is a bacterial infection of the skin which comes in three types, one of which results in a red, itchy bump with yellowish discharge that becomes crusted. Apparently, to the untrained eye, the symptoms of impetigo are quite similar to an insect bite, whether it started with one or not. I thought you might find this interesting, because my search pattern started with my assumption that I had a mosquito bite, and was searching in the category "insect bites", but the information I really wanted was "classified" on the web under "bacterial infections of the skin".
It took reading through quite a lot of search results, including one Google Books search result before I was able to reformulate my search terms. I had a better "scent" of information in the results which also used the word "crusted" or "crusty", and that scent led me to the word "impetigo", which had the best scent of all, and then I found my answer.
This is a pretty common kind of story--J started to search for a topic, then discovered that a shift in terms would yield MUCH better results. In this case, the shift from insect bite to a search on impetigo did a great deal to improve the quality of the search results.
I take two big lessons's from J's story..
1. The right query term selection REALLY matters. You can spend a lot of time wandering in the search wilderness without a good term. But once you have it, the search is frequently very short. (And contrariwise, if you have the WRONG search term, you can be in big trouble. Be sure you know what it is you're searching for!)
2. Learning-while-you-search is key to power searching. J's big insight was when he noticed an unfamiliar term (impetigo) in the middle of his results. By recognizing that as a potentially useful word, and turning his search to include that, he learned something about the area, and can now search much more effectively.