Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Search strategies--What are they?

This month I'll be teaching 6 classes on how to be a better searcher.  I'll teach lots of tactics and tips (basically, the tricks you use to drill down to just the bit of information you're looking for)... but I also teach search strategies:  that is, the larger guidelines you follow to guide your searching over the longer term. 

There are many pieces of search strategy knowledge to have, but perhaps the biggest one is: 
Know when to ask someone else for help. 

I've written about this a few times before, but it remains true.  One of the hallmarks of a truly expert searcher is one who knows when to stop their current search strategy and switch to another strategy.  And one of the best secondary strategies is to call someone who you know is an expert in that field.

One of the implications of this is that really great searchers are inherently somewhat social: they have a relatively large network of friends they can tap when they get stuck.  And this is one of the truly great uses for social networks such as Facebook, LinkedIn or Google+    When you've hit a brick wall, consider tapping one of your specialist friends.  If the problem is solvable, they just might be able to solve it in a few seconds, whereas it might take you hours.  

Remember, that when all else is lost, consider one of the "Ask A Librarian" services.  (I also wrote about "Ask a Librarian" before, but it's worth bringing it back up in this context.  They're often extremely good, and they're always your friend.)  

Now, a question for you:  What search strategies do YOU employ in your searching?  

I'd like to get a nice collection from my distinguished readers.  I'll summarize + comment on them in a future post.  

Search on!  (Strategically...)  


  1. Things I've learned from you and Tasha as well as others:

    • Use the left side of Google search page (favorites include translated pages and image search using color palette)

    • The whole can be greater than the parts - searching using Google's Video search http://www.google.com/video covers more ground than searching YouTube.

    • Be aware of the capabilities of other search engines like Wolfram|Alpha (Words With Friends or Crossword Puzzle helper) and IMDB.com (filming locations and two actors working together)

    • I use different language to tell someone else than what I think in my head. Talking about what I'm looking for out loud to a friend helps to redirect my thinking and gives me new terms.

    • walk away and then come back to it

    • increase your vocabulary by doing a synonym search

    • language changes over time - if something was cataloged or recorded a long time ago you need to think like the person who cataloged it and use language they would have used in their time.

  2. For me the key thing is recognizing that if I'm searching online for something non-trivial, vocabulary is probably the last step before the answer. Put another way, what I'm usually looking for involves learning what some word means that I didn't know was a word. I made up a law about it -- if you already knew the words you needed to perform a search, you'd just perform the search, so anything you're having difficulty finding is by necessity going to demand that you learn some new words.

    Today, I decided to see if I could put a chin-up bar in my attic. What this came down to was determining if there was a thing that would attach a piece of piping to a piece of wood, perpendicularly. Of course, there is -- it's called a pipe flange, which you probably knew, and I applaud your greatness. My point is, as soon as I knew the word, I knew my answer -- yes, and it's going to take a flange or two.

    This happens all the time -- how do I convert a movie I stole off the internet to something my ipod can handle? Turns out, the answer involved the 'words' 'avi' and 'mp4' and 'video container' and things like that, and after I knew those words, finding what I wanted was trivial, but until I did, I was fumbling around.

    It's how I can tell I'm moving in the right direction -- I start reading words for things that I didn't know were things. Once I have those, they act as handles that I can grab onto in making the searches that really get me where I'm looking to go.

    So that's it for me: what I'm usually looking for is a word, and the word leads to the thing that's useful -- the flange itself. I didn't even know my question was really about flanges at first, but once I learned what one was, it was obvious that that was what I was looking for.

  3. Here are my three favorite:

    Take it all the way – don’t give up after the first three returns and don’t quit without trying different combinations of search terms.

    Be willing to recognized that you’re searching in the wrong place.

    Look through the references – if someone’s name keeps popping up, search for their original work.

  4. >What search strategies do YOU employ in your searching?

    - Identify the most unique searchable terms. Look for "individualistic" terms
    (Augment the process with insider knowledge)
    - Scan the results rapidly
    - Double-check to see if there's a second (or third) source that confirms particular insights.

  5. I use image search to understand the meaning of unfamiliar or foreign words - it is often more informative than a dictionary definition or translation. Image search is also useful with foreign names to make a guess about the gender and ethnicity of the person.

  6. In general, my most effective strategy with searching is to try to imagine how the information I'm looking for might be presented.

    For all their tricks and shortcuts that make modern search algorithms really brilliant, at some level they are still just looking through the text on pages. Some inexperienced searchers ask Google questions like "where can I find ___" and they occasionally get lucky but more often end up frustrated. Some engines try to parse human english in ways that are shockingly good, but still less than perfect.

    I try to imagine how somebody would present the information I'm looking for and type that text into a search engine. More often than not, I quickly find what I'm looking for, and usually find that the answer contains a partial quote of my search string. This strategy took some time for me to be proficient with but at this point it is second nature.

  7. I find using the commands available in Google work best for general inquiries. What I have been using more frequently are the commands at the end of the URL of a result page to filter or change the algorithm of my search. For example, restricting a set of results using a country code. I did have one about searching images of people by changing the URL of the results to isolate faces but I have lost the string that goes at the end of the URL. Maybe you can provide here if it still works. It was similar to &img=face...I can't remember it anymore and didn't write it in my notes but it did work.

    Great blog by the way...thanks for your insights

  8. When I'm teaching high school students to search in a database I teach them to start off broad and then narrow it down. I find young adults trying to be too specific at the beginning of the search and then immediately saying "there is nothing on this topic."

    I also like to teach them that searching is an uncertain process. Even the experts don't know exactly what to search for when they begin.

  9. If I need to start researching a topic that is fairly new to me, I start by reading what Wikipedia has to say about the subject. Those pages are generally written by people with a passion for the subject matter, so they already know more than I do. But I also take that info with a grain of salt and understand there could be some bias. I mine their references and footnotes (if there are any -- which is another clue to reliability), and then I find I am armed with more places to look or better ways to limit my search on Google with helpful terms.

    Why re-invent the wheel, right? But of course, don't take anything at face value either.

    1. Wikipedia is not a useful website ma'm anybody can comment on it

    2. Wikipedia is not a reliable source. Anyone can answer on it and put fake information.

    3. Wikipedia is bad anyone could put anything

    4. Wikipedia is a bad website anyone could write anything