Shawn Douglas

Thursday - Jun 21, 2012

GoogleImageA few weeks ago one of my clients who works in the software industry posed a question online to other like-minded software engineers, asking if anyone knew if a certain type of software existed. After three days without a response, my curiosity kicked in. I used Google’s search page to see what was on the Web. Less than a minute later, I had found at least one example of the requested software. I happily shared that information with my client, though a tiny voice of irritation whispered to me: “why didn’t my client simply do what I did in the first place: search the Internet?”

As Internet search engines have rapidly become more sophisticated, access to information (often of widely varying quality) has become more commonplace. Within seconds a simple Web search can often yield thousands of results, whether the question is “when is Easter 2013?” or a more complicated “why did Company X buy Company Y?” In fact, the Internet search has become so easy many long-term users of the ‘net — who often don’t have patience for those new to it — will bluntly advise information seekers to simply “Google it.” Some even go one step further and cynically respond with a “let me Google that for you” link, which mimics the action of a Google search and ends with the message “was that so hard?”

The reality of acquiring information online is admittedly more complex than “Google it,” however. (I keep referencing Google as it’s what I tend to use most. There are of course many other options; your mileage may vary.) Here are a few reasons why:

1. A more social and collaborative approach to acquiring information is desired.
2. The knowledge of how to effectively use a search engine is limited.
3. “Information overload” complicates the search.
4. Access to the desired information is limited or closed.
5. The information simply doesn’t exist publicly (or at all) on the Internet.

The client I mentioned in the introduction is likely an example of someone seeking a more collaborative approach to information gathering. It’s possible my client, rather than wanting to search the Internet, preferred to tap into the knowledge of peers first. After all, who better to ask than other software engineers if a type of software exists? Sure, I provided an answer through a Web search of my own, but it’s also possible someone else may have been able to respond with a more personal experience.

For others the problem may simply be a lack of knowing how to effectively utilize a search engine. Sure, it may be easy enough to type in a few words and search, but often times more information is needed. What is the topic? What are the keywords related to the topic? In what format do you expect to find the information? All these questions are important when trying to decide what phrases/terms to search for. Additionally, knowing how to format those phrases/terms for more advanced searches can often lead to more focused search results. (The University of California – Berkeley Library offers a useful tutorial for optimizing your search strategy.)

Sometimes knowing how to use a search engine isn’t enough either. In some cases searchers may deal with too much information, closed access to information, or simply no information at all when conducting a Web search. In the case of the first, “information overload” may set in quickly when suddenly presented an overwhelming amount of choices when searching for something specific. This problem can sometimes be remedied by using more specific search times. However, on some occasions the particular topic is so general or well-discussed, sorting through all the results and finding the most relevant information can be a struggle.

A fourth concern why “Google it” isn’t always an easy answer: the information sought may be hidden behind a pay wall. Many online newspapers and scientific journals, for example, offer limited access to their content, usually through some sort of personal or academic subscription plan. And while the debate about the necessity of these pay walls continues, the associated restriction of information sometimes leads to great resentment, especially from those who have an “open access” philosophy.

Finally, these pay walls aren’t the only problem we may face; sometimes the information we seek simply can’t be found. It either doesn’t exist, or it’s buried in the “invisible Web,” an area that isn’t seen by most search engines. As such, special tools may be needed to search the invisible Web for hard-to-find information, and even then no guarantee can be made it will be found.

To close, these five scenarios should make it clear enough: the Internet search isn’t always the easy answer. From desiring more collaborative fact gathering to requiring more precise tools to probe the invisible Web, there are plenty of reasons why throwing a few words into an Internet search engine may not be enough for information seekers. And as data is increasingly making its way online in more complex forms, the challenges likely won’t get any easier for makers and users of search engines.

So the next time you feel tempted to tell someone to just “Google it,” remember that advice doesn’t always yield an easy, straightforward process. The pursuit of information via the Internet is sometimes more than just a few keystrokes and a mouse click.

Photo via Cea, Flickr Creative Commons