Getting Confused about Search

Over the last few months, I’ve been hearing this term quite a bit: “search fatigue”. Since I had absolutely no idea what it meant, I thought I’d check. So I Googled it.

Until I saw what came up, if I’d been asked to guess what it meant, I’d have tried some variant on information overload or infoglut. Instead, what I got as search result number one was this article, suitably headlined Search Fatigue.

I read it. And I didn’t understand it. I quote from the article (which itself quotes from an article by Jeffrey Beall in a magazine called American Libraries):

Search fatigue, according to Beall, is a feeling of dissatisfaction when search results do not return the desired information.

“The root cause of search fatigue,” Beall told me, “is a lack of rich metadata and a system that can exploit the metadata.”

I read that, and re-read it. So search fatigue is an academic-sounding term for Google rage. Okay, I got that. And the next sentence was also fine; the richer the metadata, the richer one can make the search experience. So far so good. But soon after that I got confused. Beall went on:

For example, metadata-enabled searching, as you find in a library when it searches through its databases for resources, “allows for precise author, title, and subject searches,” Beall says. In other words, it looks only in the fields you request, rather than searching through the entire document. If you name the author, it looks only in the author field of each document, thus returning only relevant hits.

If Beall is being quoted correctly, he is asserting that deterministic search actually improves the search experience.

Everything I have learnt about search points the other way. Formal data structures, key fields, primary keys, these are all the ways we lost information in the first place. In fact tree structures were probably more responsible for losing things than everything else put together; have you ever tried looking for archived mail or files you Saved rather than Saved As on your PC?

I thought we were moving away from deterministic search to probabilistic models. I thought people at Google and Technorati and wherever else were finding ways to raise the relevance of amorphous poorly-filed information, using a variety of artifices to reflect the value of links and references. I thought we would be heading towards the next generation of collaborative filtering, where I can “pass” my search bias to someone else, or for that matter perform Boolean operations on search bias.

The problem that needs solving is not to do with finding things that have been well labelled and well filed. That we have always been able to do. What we haven’t been able to do is to find the messy stuff, partially named, partially remembered, often misfiled, often misclassified.

6 thoughts on “Getting Confused about Search”

  1. Hopefully, it will be neither surprising nor confusing that different action situations (Habermas again) require different search experiences. For example, in the new post I just created for my own blog, I wanted to make sure that I got all the text details right for that “brave new world” quote from THE TEMPEST. If I had not been able to do that with effective deterministic search, THAT would have been cause for Google rage!

    This reminds me of the days when Symbolics and Xerox were competing over the LISP machine market. The Xerox product drew upon all sorts of cool technology to facilitate software development, none of which had any sort of adequate substitute in the Symbolics product. I used to say that Xerox had designed a machine for people who wanted to produce real code for real-world work situations, while Symbolics had designed a machine for people who liked to play Adventure (as it was then called)!

    Sometimes you would prefer to get a direct answer to a direct question without taking the time to smell the flowers!

  2. Amen, JP.

    Across the board, librarians could be doing a better job embracing tech advancements and figuring out ways to make collaborative filtering/tagging/taxonomies better — thereby making librarians relevant again — instead of continuing to fight for the old hierarchies.

    Dugg it.

  3. Great post. Definitely agree with the premise of ‘search fatigue’, it is definitely there and we are in the world of information overload more than ever. I am not in the world of blog overload and still subscribing to more and more blogs each day.

    The fundamental question for search to answer is to either through interface or algorithmically solve the user’s problem or task. It sounds simple but obviously not. And the solution sounds obvious but clearly not simple. There is the concept of “role-based search” that is emerging as well where by the engine itself ‘knowing’ the role of the user, it can can have a baseline of the type of data and information is important, and the types of questions/answers such a user in that role asks.

  4. Lou, you may be on to something. It DEFINITELY is not simple (and I am not even sure it is obvious); but, at the very least, it portends a shift away from the “Google paradigm,” into which we have become hopelessly locked because it is so deceptively simple. Let me start with a point of agreement and then see where it takes me.

    I think that what I (actually Habermas) had previously called an “action situation” is a useful generalization of what you called “the user’s problem or task.”

    The reason that simplicity eludes us is that this is such a broad category that we have to unpack it ontologically (and probably epistemologically, as well). I took a first crack at the ontology last month during the discussion of the opensourcing of processes:

    However, your proposal of “role-based search” taps into an epistemological issue that derives from this ontology and needs a lot of further consideration. As I suggested in the opensourcing discussion, we cannot talk about processes in any productive way unless we are as “epistemologically comfortable” with verbs and very phrases as we are with nouns and noun phrases:

    Database technology has cultivated a mind-set that is so comfortable with nouns and noun phrases (the foundations of all schemata and query languages) that we have pretty much deluded ourselves into believing the verbs and verb phrases are unnecessary. However, if we are going to talk about processes, we have to shatter that delusion, because processes are epistemologically verb-based; and, when you introduce the concept of role, you are recognizing that SEARCH is fundamentally a PROCESS!

    Now, as you can probably guess, there is a lot more to the epistemology of processes than roles. Much of my own research in this area has focussed on Kenneth Burke, who developed a terminological framework for motivated action; but I believe that framework can be generalized to any verb-based epistemology, such as an epistemology of processes. One way to come up to speed on this material is to check out one of my own blog posts about outsourcing and then follow up on the hyperlinks:

    Finally, I think that the comment by Washington DC SEO on the virtue of librarians taps into an important distinction that is often overlooked:

    A librarian is a SERVICE professional, whose “role” is neither defined nor evaluated according to the criteria of a production economy. While search ENGINES are definitely PRODUCTS and need to be evaluated as such, the SUPPORT OF SEARCH is, strictly speaking, a SERVICE. It is more likely that such a service will be rendered by PEOPLE with particularly skills for using particular tools, rather than by making those tools available to anyone who needs the service.

  5. Steve: That was some comment post, and full of useful knowledge and links. I have not as of yet looked at this issue in the context of “epistemology” or at least not used the term. However, I agree with a lot of what you’ve stated and look forward to the posts you’ve included.

    Interestingly, since my post about speaking on this topic later this week, I’ve been pulled into several conversations on it:

    I’m sure I will be posting more on the topic as well. But fundamentally we agree that search is a service, and not a generic box that implicitly states to the user “do with me what you would like” b/c the user starts from zero each time with no context. The whole concept of search leveraging ontologies, taxonomies and structured/unstructured data is that we can/will see applications where the “search box” isn’t the focal point, search is the platform engine that runs the searches that appear as structured data sets irrespective of whether those data sets come from structured or unstructured data natively.

  6. Search Fatigue for me is the 50 or so super aggressive search marketers, whose ‘results’ show up way too much. Whether they appear via paid ads or SEO, search polluters is what they are. Yes I know ebay sells everything. Does that mean I want to see ebay in all of my searches? No. Nor do I want to see half my search screen real estate cluttered with pricegrabber, shopzilla,, target,, dealtime, pricegrabber, nextag, epinions. Enough! Begone thy search polluters!

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