Tuesday, August 8, 2017

The difficulty of searching for something dimly remembered...

I saw it, but only briefly.... 

Now I want to refind it.  But how? 

A true story:  A few days ago I saw an interesting article in my Facebook feed.  It was one that I distinctly remember as something I wanted to find and read in detail later. But I was busy, so I skipped over it, and figured that I’d be able to find it easily later. Maybe you've done this as well.  

But then....  it took me 90 minutes to RE-find it.  What happened? 

What I remembered about the article:  I recalled that it was a post by The Atlantic magazine (which I follow on FB), and that it was about how millennials (or Gen Z, I forget which) now believe that “there is a great deal of information that cannot be found on the internet.”   That was the phrase I read and remembered. I thought my memory was pretty good, so searching on Facebook should just work, right? 

But the obvious search doesn't turn up anything.   (This is true even if I limit the search to a particular source, in this case, "The Atlantic" stream by entering the name of the publication in the "Posted by" option.)  

However, I did a LOT of searches, limiting the time scope to the past month, site searching the magazine, searching FB… couldn’t find it. 

What was going wrong?  

Short answer:  I was trying too hard with long queries.  I should have known better... 

To actually find the article, I went back through my feed MANUALLY, one post at a time working my way back in time.  Of course,  I finally found it, and here’s what the post actually looked like:

Now, WHY couldn't I find it except by brute force? 

Because my searches were close, but not precise enough.  They were all variations on this Facebook search:

     On Facebook:  [ students “important information” not on the internet ] 

 ... and all obvious variations don’t work.  Note that all of these words appear in the post. 

 Hmm.  This search should have worked.  

Insight #1: Search on Facebook is picky.  You have to give it exactly what you know is there, and nothing more. 
Insight #2: You need to have a fairly precise search to find a specific article that you’re looking for on Facebook.  

Ultimately, when I found the story (by repetitively clicking), it linked to "Millenials are Out-Reading Older Generations," which is well worth reading.  

After I found it, I spent some time backing up and trying to use regular Google searches that would work to find this article by searching just The Atlantic site.  Here are the Google searches that worked for me:

    [ students “important information” “not available on the internet” site:theatlantic.com ] – 1 result

     [ students “important information” “not * on the internet” site:theatlantic.com ] – 1 result

     [ “important information” “not * on the internet” site:theatlantic.com ]  - 1 result

     [  important information “not * on the internet” site:theatlantic.com ] – result #2

     [“important information” not on the internet site:theatlantic.com ] result #3

     [  information “not * on the internet” site:theatlantic.com ] – result #5

     [ “not * on the internet” site:theatlantic.com ] – result #8

Notice that a lot of variations on this theme worked just fine.  With quotes, without quotes, using the * operator.  

The important thing to notice here is that what works on Google might not work on Facebook search.  

Another thing worth noticing, the shorter queries work just fine.  Keep this in mind.  

In the interest of fairness, I went back to Facebook search with the article in hand and re-did my search with an exact quote.  Naturally, it was the first (and only) hit: 

How is it possible that I didn't try THIS particular variation of the query?  Methinks it's because I was trying with too many terms... I was working too hard.  

The Facebook query I SHOULD have tried at first is just with the single term that I was really sure was in the article--the relatively rare term "millennials."  

This is a much better search strategy.  It's doesn't give me the result I want in position 1... but it's at position 5 in the Facebook search results, which is pretty good.  This strategy would have given me the result in less than 1 minute, rather than the 90 minutes I actually spent!  

... scroll down to the next page to see result #5 


There are a few Search Lessons here: 

1.  Different sites have different search behaviors.  Facebook's search works rather differently than Google.  You have to understand the limits (and capabilities) of each.  (For instance, Google can't search the posts on Facebook.)  

2. Being persistent means trying variations on a theme... and trying different resources.  I should have followed my own advice--advice I've given many times before... 

3.  Start as simple as possible, then add keywords as you discover what's not working.  

4.  Sometimes, the best way to search on a site is by using Google. As you can see, the Google queries are pretty robust--many of the query variations return exactly what you're looking for.  (This is a general comment: it's not just limited to Facebook.)  

Keep searching!  


  1. off topic, but related, @ the 'Plex; End of Discussion… not just yet… just to add some spice to the noggin soup* — using some sRs tools…
    … speaking of tAW… sometimes things move at a seemingly accelerated rate… physics be damned… there seems to be a "disturbance in the Force"… Obi-Won
    is Lord Vader the 119th-richest person in the world?
    "love the idea of a toaster with button for “a bit more”!… the word 'toaster' may be replaced with other words, phrases, actions or images
    a memo
    the memo
    found here:
    from 2015
    Conor Friedersdorf
    Mr. Friedersdorf's filter (maybe use 'notable' instead of 'best')
    Guardian coverage
    more G
    Sundar Pichai memo… uhmm - note (not yet a 'matter')
    Wired - James Damore (but WHY was he fired?)
    heavy 5

    *stone soup
    (working off the premise/allegory of Apple being the Beatles, then G must be the Stones… the Beach Boys didn't seem to fly… too soon to throw the Black Sabbath card…)
    the 'Plex ambient audio for the next few days
    HQ devil
    Mixed Emotions
    or maybe - it worked in France
    Bastille Day

  2. new link color is bright…
    … might be pushing the sRs parameters… thumbnail rotated on its own, am now hurtling face down - autonomously altered thumbnail… potentially evil message
    End of Discussion… boot on neck
    boots, plural
    Google + Distinguished Engineer, Privacy at Google
    twitter - an active twitter user like POTUS - the twitter blender
    seems harsh, perhaps even threatening, to refer to A or G corporate leadership that way… guessing no termination in the offing:
    "It's like every prospective leader sits on a spectrum between "Chaotic Evil" and "Lawful Stupid.""
    but from 30,000 feet…
    …and click
    what's the phrase? – 'it's a process' you might have some additions…

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