Boolean Operators and the Naive End-User: Moving to AND

By Proctor, Edward | Online, July-August 2002 | Go to article overview

Boolean Operators and the Naive End-User: Moving to AND


Proctor, Edward, Online


"The world is full of obvious things, which nobody by any chance ever observes."

SHERLOCK HOLMES, THE HOUND OF THE BASKERVILLES

According to Dietmar Wolfram in his paper "A Query-Level Examination of End User Searching Behaviour on the Excite Search Engine," studies consistently show an extremely low percentage of searches employ Boolean operators (even the most optimistic found "fewer than 10 percent," and far more common are estimates of 3-5 percent) [www.slis.ualberta.ca/cais2000/wolfram.htm]. Working from 1997 data supplied by Excite, Bernard J. Jansen, Amanda Spink, and Tefco Saracevic in numerous articles note that, among those few that attempt Boolean searches, fully 26 percent--or more than one in four--do so incorrectly Clearly, for the vast majority of Web users the principles of Boolean logic are, to borrow Ann Bishop's beautifully apt phrase, an "insu rmountable molehill" ("Nothing But Net: Understanding the Digital Library User," ACRL Instruction Section. ALA Annual conference, New Orleans, June 1999).

As everyone who deals with library patrons in an automated environment knows, a lack of understanding OR the incorrect use of Boolean operators is a major obstacle preventing the full and effective use of electronic resources AND this problem has NOT lessened in recent years.

LACK OF UNDERSTANDING OR CONFUSION

With the recent news that AltaVista has finally switched its default from OR to AND, all major Web search engines now default to AND. It's hard to see how those in charge at AltaVista could have failed to realize this several years ago. But better late than never.

As a result of this switch, automatic OR searching is now largely confined to the universe of smaller, site-specific search engines. The ability of the engines to provide access to the contents of the "Invisible Web" is at last beginning to be appreciated, after long being overshadowed by their bigger brothers, the huge commercial Web search tools.

SITE-SPECIFIC SEARCH ENGINES

Unfortunately, many site-specific search engines are severely handicapped by having defaults set to OR. Meaningful searches of large collections become nearly impossible. For example, attempting to locate African fossils among the many artifacts held by the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago [http://search.fmnh.org] results in 336 hits because the engines searches either the word African or the word fossils. If the default setting was AND, the search would have returned 19 hits.

Similarly--and for exactly the same reasons--attempting to locate South American birds among the residents of the San Diego Zoo [www.sandiegozoo.org/apps/search/index.php] will result in an unmanageable (and unfocused) 712 hits. Trying to find French Impressionist paintings in the J. Paul Getty Museum [www.getty.edu/search] will overwhelm the searcher with 2,908 hits (which could have been reduced to a mere 28 by the simple expedient of defaulting to AND). Unfortunately, an enormous number of otherwise excellent, content-rich Web sites are crippled by this drawback.

Appallingly, user access to the ocean of U.S. government information--the largest publisher in the world--is severely hampered by search interfaces that default to OR. Go to GPO Access [www.access.gpo.gov/congress/cong100.shtml?wm001.html#cont03] and read, "These instruction [sic] provided below are general and apply to all of the GPO [Government Printing Office] databases.... The default operator for the WAIS service is OR, so a series of words searched without any Boolean operators will be treated as if an OR had been inserted between each word."

Thus, the results of a search for toxic chemicals in the current Federal Register (vol. 67) will exceed the maximum allowable number of hits (200) since the site's search engine looks for either toxic or chemicals. If an AND were inserted into the search string (toxic AND chemicals), the number of documents retrieved would be reduced to 64. …

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