Friday, August 1, 2014

Answer: Three Classic Mistakes

This week I asked for a little help in diagnosing what went wrong in each of the following little search hassles I had.  What happened in each of the following cases?  Imagine you're trying to remote tech-support.  What would you suggest as the key failure?  Let's do them one at a time.   
1.  My missing friend's article.  I have a friend by the name of Sean Carlson.  A former Googler, he now writes beautifully about Ireland and the experiences of an Irish transplant to America.  One day last year he mentioned to me that he had an article published in the New York papers about being Irish and an immigrant.  "That's fantastic!" I thought.  About a month later I remembered that I wanted to read it, so I started checking the New York Times for his article.  I did the obvious search:    [  Sean Carlson]  But much to my surprise, I couldn't find his article.  I eventually found it by modifying my query, but what did I do wrong here? 

Ah clear case of "overly-specific-itis!"  

Note that I remembered that Sean had his story "...published in the New York papers..."  But my search for it was site: limited to just the New York Times.   I made a big leap of inference when I added in the -- I should have just gone with the much simpler [Ireland Sean Carlson New York] and relied on Google to find me a recent article by "Sean Carlson, about Ireland, in some paper published in the New York.  (The article I was looking for, "An Irish Journey, Shared by All" is a lovely read.  If you have any interest in the experiences of immigrants--and face it, we were all immigrants at some point--I recommend it.)  

Search Lesson:  It's possible to OVERUSE clever search techniques and miss your search by being too specific.  When you're not sure of the site (or the filetype, or the exact phrase used), if the first search doesn't reveal what you seek, consider taking the magic operators OUT of your search.  I assumed it was the NYTimes, when in fact, it was the Daily News, a different newspaper in New York.

2.  Another friend's missing G+ post.  I have another friend named Jaime Teevan (a nice, uncommon name for searching!).  Most remarkably, this past week she and her 10-year-old son walked 100 miles from their home to a "local" amusement park.  I knew that she'd just put a post onto G+.  So I went to G+ and did a Control-F to find her name (and hence the post).  But there were no hits!  What?  Later, I went back and did the same thing, and FOUND her post.  What happened?  Why could I not find it the first time, but I could find it the second time?   (I checked--she had posted it to G+ several hours earlier, so it really was there, but Control-F couldn't find it.  And no, I didn't misspell her name.)  
Here's my G+ page as it looked when I wanted to find Jaime's post. 

When I did my Control-F in my G+ window, it looked like this: 

What?  I knew that she'd just had a posting... I'd seen it just a day or two ago.  

It took me a while to figure this one out, although I should have known better... 

Like many "streaming" services (for instance, your Twitter stream, your News stream, your Facebook stream--anything that keeps updating as you use it), the page you're currently reading is actually just a fraction of the entire page.  

If you stop and think about it for a second, it makes sense.  What is a stream?  In the case of G+, it's a never-ending flow of messages coming from all over.  What you're looking at in any one instant is just what happens to be currently available.  In other words, if you Control-F for something, it might not be in the current view of the steam.  Look at this diagram: 

The stuff in the blue dashed box represents the articles you see in the current view of the G+ page.  And therefore, the stuff in the green dashed box is the stuff you can see by scrolling up.  

However...  streams always have more stuff at the bottom that hasn't been loaded into the browser yet.  That is, you can't reach the bottom.  (Although some streams, like Facebook, loop their materials.  If you keep scrolling, at some point it will take you back to the top of the current list of posts.)  

In any event, if the thing you're trying to FIND (using Control-F) is not yet loaded into your browser, then you can't find it.  

How do you know when you're dealing with a stream?  Usually you'll see something like this when you get to the (current) bottom of the stream... look at the very bottom... 

see the circle and the text "Loading..."?  That's your clue that the web browser is going out and loading more content into the stream.  

I scrolled down a few more pages, then redid my Control-F, and found the page I was looking for: 

(Jaime, by the way, is the author, and Mom, of her own blog on search--Slow Searching.  If you enjoy this blog, I bet you'll enjoy hers as well.)  

As several readers pointed out, I should have just searched for her name in the search box at the top of the page.  But of course that won't work if you're searching for a particular term that's not a named person.  Suppose that I'd been searching for her son's name, Cale, then a search for his name wouldn't have worked.  

Search Lesson:  For streams, Control-F only works on the content that's been loaded into the browser.  As we start to see more and more streams, we have to be aware that some of the techniques we use to search don't work in quite the way you expect.  Sometimes, you have to know what the properties are of the thing you're searching!  

3.  A missing conversation with a friend.  My third friend and I had a long conversation last night; back and forth we messaged each other to figure out what to do about a particular technical problem that came up.  This morning, when I went to my Gmail to find the instant messaging thread, there was nothing there.  Oh, I could open up the IM I sent to him and find some text, but I couldn't figure out where the long text of our conversation had gone.  Do you have any idea about what could have happened here?  Where can I find out longish back-and-forth conversation?  Any ideas?  
There are two things that went wrong for me here!  

First, I have my Instant Message chats on my GMail set up to be "History is off."  That means that the IMs disappear after about 24 hours.  Even if I click on my IM chat icon for my friend, if we'd chatted more than a day ago, it would have been automatically deleted.  

But that actually wasn't the problem. 

The problem was actually more subtle than this, and it brings up a deep point about searching.  

In the first Classic Error (above) I overlimited my search because I thought that Sean's article would have been printed in the New York Times.  

The same error is happening here.  I thought my long conversation was in Gmail's IM.  But it wasn't there at all; that's just the place where I do most of my long IM conversations.  

When I went to check my Facebook chat window, I found the entire conversation.  Ah ha!  I'd overlimited my search to the wrong IM system!  (Truthfully, this is becoming more of a problem.  Now I have SnapChats, Twitter conversations, Facebook chat, different GMail accounts with different IM retention policies.)  And unfortunately, there's not one search engine to rule them all.  


Search lesson:  When searching for something that seems gone (although you're sure you saw it), consider other sources that you might confuse with the source you thought it was in.  For this example, I should have been faster to think "If it's not in this chat stream, what other chat streams do I use?"  and then gone off to search there.   

More generally, start your searches broadly, and rapidly iterate through the searches, honing in on a particular source only when you have to.  

Search on!  (And search on broadly!) 


  1. With constant changes & different systems a good reminder to rethink our search methods. For example with long chats I use Google Docs in Google Drive. I feel its simple, flexible & gives me control.

  2. I would have never guessed it was in a different chat source! Tricky question, but good search lesson.