Magazine article Online

Changes in Search Behavior

Magazine article Online

Changes in Search Behavior

Article excerpt

A striking thing about the changes in our online world over the past 30 years is how searchers approach a research project. Early articles in ONLINE included elaborate, elegant--and lengthy--search strategies. Sometimes the strategies filled an entire magazine page. They made online searching look like an art form, or perhaps it would be more accurate to say that online searching was an art form. There were Boolean operators, proximity determinations, truncation, and nested terms. There were field searching, sorting, and relevance ranking. We searchers excelled at commanding search engines to do our bidding. In fact, that's what it was called--command language searching. Never did it occur to early online searchers that the search engine would call the tune. No, that was a job for the information professional.

Web search is different. The search engine has a logic all its own. Granted, that logic may differ from Google to Yahoo! to and so on, which is why you get different results lists from different engines, but the overall premise is identical--the search engine knows more than you do. Its algorithms trump your commands. Information professionals were, initially, very uncomfortable with this notion, but they have become more accepting over time.


Web search engine companies report an average of about 2.2 words entered into a search box for each search. Until last year, Google recognized only the first 10 words in a search statement. You could type more in, but Google would ignore anything after 10. Now the limit is 32, although I wonder how frequently that limit is reached by ordinary searchers. It's a far cry from the "limitation" of 2,048 characters for a search statement on Factiva, which allows for considerably more than 32 words.

At one point in the late 1990s, ON-LINE ran a short series of articles titled "Head to Head." The idea was to compare the search processes and results using Web search versus traditional online search. The series was dropped after the authors all came to the same conclusion: Whether the topic was snowboards or company information, professional researchers needed to combine Web search with traditional since neither by itself gave a complete answer. Perhaps we should revisit this, focusing on the strengths and weaknesses of the various approaches. It's not a bifurcation between Web and traditional search, but the information professional's ability, in his or her search behavior, to capitalize on special features and content.


Cost was a big worry in the early days of online. Pricing for services such as Dialog, LexisNexis, and Dow Jones News/ Retrieval (now Factiva) was high. No free alternative existed. Since pricing was based on the amount of time you spent online, information professionals composed their elaborate strategies offline. Cost was such a barrier that quick online reactions and a "get-in-and-out-fast" mentality predominated. In the Web search environment, you can leisurely peruse search results, experiment with alternative search terms, and jump from one search engine to another. This is not to say that information professionals have no cost constraints. Certainly in the corporate world, there are many online information sources that are absolutely necessary and they are not searchable on the free Internet.

Storage is another area that has seen enormous changes. Personal computers today are vastly more powerful than earlier models and hold staggering amounts of data. The first bibliographic databases tended to abbreviate words, cramming them into the smallest possible fixed field to minimize storage space. …

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