Monday, April 18, 2011

Is it just trivia? Thinking about learning in AGoogleADay

A few people have asked me if the project is really just a clever way of getting people to search more effectively or if we have some other more subtle goal here. 

The truth is...  We really just want to teach people how to search more effectively.  That's a big goal in-and-of-itself.  As Ken Denmead writes in his GeekDad blog on WIRED: "Over time, Google has realized that people aren’t using Google to its full potential. Like taking your Lamborghini Miura to the corner store to pick up a lottery ticket, folks haven’t been truly putting the search engine through its paces..."  

You've heard me say that before (although not quite as vividly as Denmead).  

The nuance of AGoogleADay is to teach a subtle through a fun activity that encourages play and exploration.  And although we're not giving explicit instructions, I suspect that people who try to solve the puzzle, then read the answer and understand it, will be picking up a good deal of strategic search insight.  

This past week we've presented a number of problems that all turn on three skills that aren't explicitly mentioned, but picked up through trying to solve the problem.  The skills are: 

1.  Query term selection, as you saw the Rohan and Robert problem ("My name is Robert. One day before my brother Rohan’s 19th birthday, our father had an album on the Billboard 200. Name the album.")  You come to understand that you don't type the problem as presented, but extract the most salient terms for the initial query.  Thus, [ Rohan Robert brothers ] is a great starting query.  (Whereas [ my name is Robert.  One day before... ] is not.)  

2.  Chaining steps together.  Solving the two future presidents problem ("Two future presidents signed me. Two didn't because they were abroad. Despite my importance, modern viewers seem to think I have a glaring spelling error. What is it?") requires first figuring out what the document was that two future presidents signed AND two future presidents did not (who were also alive at the same time).  Once you know that, you can search for [ Constitution misspellings ] and come to know that what once passed for plausible spelling (that is, "Pensylvania").  Interesting side-note:  the state is also spelled with a single N on the Liberty Bell, but spelled with two Ns in Article 1, Section 2 of the Constitution.  Spelling was more variable in the late 18th century.  

3.  Reading carefully.  In the ferry-to-Iceland problem, ("If you were a ferry passenger traveling from Continental Europe to the country with twice as many sheep as people, in what town would you most likely dock?")  many people assumed they knew that the answer was New Zealand and did a query [ ferry Europe to New Zealand ].  But if you think about it for a second, that's a long ferry ride.  People who did this query just answered the question without reading the search results carefully.... this is the most common problem among people who are using Google to answer questions.  Trust me, there IS no regularly scheduled ferry service from Europe to New Zealand (not in any normal sense of the word "ferry").  

How'd you do this past week?  Get them all?  Miss them all? 
Let me know!  

Still searching! 


  1. "that all turn on two skills"
    Ok there are actually three skills presented...
    a) Ability to paraphrase a search problem distilling those essential words that are likely to have been used by others (so they will match when you search)
    b) Chain steps
    c) Reading carefully - without making assumptions as to what the possible answer could be - In this case, 'New Zealand' - is essential in order to get to the right info

  2. Mohan -- Right. Fixed in the text.