Magazine article Online

Online Searchers and Online Managers

Magazine article Online

Online Searchers and Online Managers

Article excerpt

When I first started writing for ONLINE in May 1985, the main topic of discussion among online professionals was end-user searching. The amount of digital content on the professional services at that time was immense; most significantly, large amounts of full text were coming online, complementing and, in many instances, supplanting abstracts. Many in the profession wanted to place these electronic riches into the hands of their clients, rather than using mediated searching alone. The online industry was on the same track, with innovative products like Knowledge Index, In-Search, and the gloriously ambitious EasyNet. (In fact, my second article for ONLINE was an analysis of EasyNet, published in July 1985.)

The debate over end-user searching (the phrase seems quaint now) continues to this day, albeit in quite different forms. The full text-revolution of the mid-1980s was followed by other miraculous technical innovations, as well as by equally significant developments in business and distribution models. Overall, these have contributed to the spread of end-user access in ways that were completely unanticipated 20 years ago. These innovations have also altered the definition of the profession and the ways in which it sees itself.


Several technical innovations have contributed to the spread of' online information, but I'll highlight the two most profound: full text and relevance searching. Now we all take both for granted, but their importance can hardly be overestimated.

We are now nearing a point where every major information medium and format--journals, newspapers, research publications, broadcasts, and books ... print, graphics, images, audio, and video--is online. Remember that during the first dozen years of the online era, online databases were nothing more than electronic finding aids that sent you off on a laborious and time-consuming hunt for the print source document. This was particularly frustrating for end users, for whom convenience is paramount. Full-text content is one of the two most important revolutions in online history, the other being pricing, which I'll discuss later.

Relevance searching, which appeared in the mid-1990s, was the automatic transmission of online searching: no more Boolean connectors, proximity operators, of field qualifiers. Not only is it easier to construct a relevance query (there's nothing to construct--just type and go), it is better than Boolean for serving end user information-seeking behavior. End users typically want a few high-relevance documents, instead of a long, date-sorted list, and relevance search engines do this superbly.

Relevance searching, which doesn't depend upon manually applied indexing the way Boolean does, has been particularly useful in handling the steadily growing quantities of full text, on both the proprietary services and on the Web. It's no accident that relevance searching is the method of choice in Web searching, where disorderly content and dearth of indexing render Boolean searching far less effective.

Relevance searching was also a rueful watershed for professional searchers. For the first time, a searcher could not know exactly what was occurring in a search. Boolean searches are relatively simple and completely predictable. Relevance engines, on the other hand, employ complex, algorithm-based methods that are completely understood only by their designers. This erodes the online searcher's knowledge and puts both searchers and end users in the same position of relying upon systems whose operation they do not fully understand.


I've not discussed the Internet as a technical innovation because I view its emergence differently. As the Web began to catch on in the early 1990s, commercial online (including professional and consumer online services) had much of what the Web had ... and an extraordinary amount that it didn't. …

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