Monday, June 19, 2017

Answer: What's difficult for YOU to find?

As you might have expected, there are many answers.   

I'm not surprised, but the variety of answers (and questions) DID surprise me!  

SRS readers have a wide variety of interests!

 This week's Challenge is about what kinds of SearchResearch questions come up for YOU in your average week.  To restate it: 

1.  What kinds of things do you find tough to research?  In an average week (however you define that),  what topics and questions do you find yourself trying to research?  

Here's what I found (from the 67 different replies I got--not just from the blog, but from other surveys as well).  

I broke the replies down into two groups.  Well, here's my summary of each category.  

A.  Easy searches.  Things we search for all the time (but aren't especially difficult to find).  This is mostly just plain old finding stuff.  Samples include:

   - word definitions
   - how to something (often looking for a YouTube video) 
   - validating interesting things we've heard 
   - simple programming questions
   - recipes
   - street addresses
   - business hours... 

Of course, sometimes these searches turn out to be harder than we expect, and they move into the difficult category.  (Keep reading...)  

B.  Difficult searches.  Things we search for, but ARE difficult to find.  These often take multiple searches, drawing on many information resources at the same time.  Some examples are: 

    - medical procedures
   - vacation information 
   - chemical structures 
   - competing interpretations of events 
   - search for quantitative information 
   - finding information about companies... 

What makes these tasks more difficult?  

There's no simple answer (of course), but based on what I see when I help people solve these kinds of search tasks, there are 4 sources of difficulty.   

1.  The search task goal is unclear and requires that you learn something before you can solve it.  

This is often the case with medical search tasks.  I see people starting their search task with a statement like "I want to learn everything about mesothelioma..."  (Substitute your own medical condition in place of mesothelioma.)  But that's a huge task that's made more difficult by having a great deal of complex medical language standing in the way.  

2.  The good information isn't easily found with Google.  

Yes, I said it... For some topics you really need to go use specialized databases.  This is usually because the specific information you need is owned by a specific data provider or is aggregated by a data provider with particular interest in that topic.  This is usually the case with business data, genealogical, or chemical information.  (That's not to say you can't find some information that's open access on these topics, but sometimes you really have to pay for the good stuff.)  

3.  There's no one-stop shop for your information need--you have to pull from multiple sources. 

This is often the case for complex tasks like "searching for vacation information."  It's not a simple, easily solved query.  Even "one-stop shops" for travel information often don't have the depth of information (or a different point of view) that you might like for your search task.   This is true when you're buying something big for your home (such as "buying a refrigerator"), planning a family trip, or trying to understand how to use the Angular 2 Javascript framework in your programming.  

4.  The information you seek doesn't have an easy-to-search-for name.   

Search terms are important, especially when they're hard to give.  For instance, when you're looking for "quantitative data" about a subject (say, the negotiated sales price of a company), or something that you can recognize but find difficult to name (such as "competing perspective on a hot political topic"), the you've got a tough search time on your hands.  It's not you--really--it's the internet that's not helping you out.  It would be nice if everything was metadata tagged appropriately and correctly, but that's not likely to happen anytime soon.

So.. what can we do about these difficult search tasks?  

I don't have enough space in this blogpost to give you the answer (nor enough time this week).  

But I CAN promise to write SRS Challenges (and corresponding answers) in the weeks ahead.  In particular, I'll write up Challenges and some great methods to handle these sources of difficult in the weeks ahead.   

In particular I'll write up the following ideas: 

* how to find free business data resources (and what tradeoffs you make when you go free, rather than using subscription databases),

* how to do complex "multi-source" research tasks (I'll tell you the methods I use to pull together info from many sources and then organize it to make sense),

* how to articulate your search goal(s) so that you'll have a better chance of finding what you want and minimizing wasted time trying to figure this stuff out, 

* how to articulate the kinds of information you're searching for that's otherwise difficult to name.  

Stay tuned. 

And thanks for all the great ideas!  Your replies (and survey results) were great!  

Search on. 


  1. One other obstacle I'm wondering about: Confidentiality.

    If what you're looking for happens to involve someone's proprietary information, how often does that make your task impossible? And if not impossible, how much tougher does it make it?

    Incidentally, according to director of the Strategic Studies Program at the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies (and former counselor at the US Department of State) Eliot A. Cohen:

    "There are multiple flavors of intelligence classification, from 'Confidential' (which is often in the public record already, just not acknowledged), to 'Secret' (usually, though not always available if you know where to look—or are willing to wait a few days), to 'Top Secret' which is beginning to be serious."

    What do you think?

    [Citation on request -- it's from an article on...let's just say a very hit topic right now.]

    1. Certainly some information is kept secret (or confidential). Whether it's labeled that way by a government, or kept off-line because of trade secrecy, it's kind of the same thing--the "normal" ways of searching won't find it.

      But you're right: sometimes "secret" information is leaked accidentally or on purpose, meaning that it can be found, although usually by some bit of extra effort! This is the point of open-source intelligence (OSINT), which is to pull together multiple sets of information to discover something deeper (or ostensibly hidden).

  2. Hello Dr. Russell and everyone.

    With this SRS Challenge, I have been looking closer to what I search for and why. At the moment, my next queries were (I know they are easy and kind of dumb, but here they are):

    1. [what the i in Iphone stands for]
    At an Apple event in 1998, Steve Jobs introduced the iMac, explaining the link between “i” and “Mac.”

    2. Watching TV Show, learned that so called Black Bears are in reality most of times brown. So why they are called that way?

    Despite their name, black bears can be blue-gray or blue-black, brown, cinnamon, or even (very rarely) white.

    Tried for example [why black bears named black bears] [black bears name origin]

    Black-colored bears predominate in the eastern and northern parts of the range, whereas the proportion of brown-colored individuals generally increases moving westward: brown-colored black bears predominate in California, Arizona, New Mexico, and parts of the Rocky Mountains (Rounds 1987).

    Other than color, how do black bears differ from grizzly bears?Also learned: "...Following fertilization, the embryo doesn’t implant in the uterus until fall at the time of den entrance. This process of delayed implantation occurs in all bear species and allows the female bear’s body to physiologically “assess” her condition before implantation occurs and the period of gestation leading to the birth of cubs really begins..."

    Couldn't find why they got that name.

    3. Looking today's Google Doodle, I wonder what kind of bird is this? So [blue bird orange chest] 2 possible answers: Eastern or Western Bluebird. So [differences eastern western bluebird]

    brown throat and white belly of the Eastern Bluebird. So I think the bird in the doodle is the Eastern one.

  3. Here is a good one: How can we limit a search to only the original sources? In other words, how to exclude all the commentary, interpretations, evaluations and alternatives. If it is research, I want to see the original research, not articles about it. If it is a quote, I want the original quote, preferably in context from the person who said it or wrote it. Just the facts, from the original sources.