Monday, February 16, 2004

Googling and the Limitations Thereof

Sunday's Washington Post had a good article on the ever-more omniscient Google. As the article notes, "to google" has entered the lexicon. "People keep finding new ways to use Google. It is now routine for the romantically savvy to Google a prospective date. "Google hackers" use the infiltrative powers of Google to pilfer bank records and Social Security numbers. The vain Google themselves." Still, the article points out some limitations to Google, and blogger Kevin Drum shows how searching remains an art as much as a science. Finding vital information requires more than googling.

There is no doubt that Google changed the way that people gathered information. The WaPo suggests that university library circulation dropped 20% since the advent of popular Internet search engines (how the heck anyone could really know that, I gotta wonder). Google did it three ways. First, it created a good algorithm, a way of getting more exact results from a search. This is usually the reason most ascribed for Google's success, but I think this reason is much less important than the other two reasons. So, second, Google's getting a LOT of stuff in their database. All search engines are only as good as the data obtained by their "spiders." The WaPo article states that, "Google initially searched about 20 million Web pages; the company's home page now boasts that it searches 3,307,998,701 pages." It is in those 3 billion+ (and growing) pages that Google finds what you want. Very often, within all those pages, only a couple of sites have your words. Thus, which page comes first hardly matters. Last, Google is good and people use Google. As Yogi Berra would put it, everyone uses Google because everyone uses Google. Once people realized they could easily search, well they did. The question stands, how good are their searches and should they be turning their backs on the library stacks.

Drum notes that the success of your search depends mostly on your ability to put in the right words. I believe I am a very good researcher, and two of the biggest skills I bring to each research project are knowing what words to put into any search and then knowing how to adjust my search based on the results. Whether it is Google or more quaint databases like Lexis-Nexis, it takes the right words to get the right results.

The WaPo article points out that googling can lead now where:

Hendler explains the problem this way: If you type into Google the words "how many cows in Texas," Google will rummage through sites with the words "cow" and "many" and "Texas," and so forth, but you may have trouble finding out how many cows there are in Texas. The typical Web page involving cows and Texas doesn't have anything to do with the larger concept of bovine demographics. (The first Google result that comes up is an article titled "Mineral Supplementation of Beef Cows in Texas" by the unbelievably named Dennis Herd.)

This is the other big trick of research, not just knowing which words but where to put the words. Google as good as it is, is not the end-all. One must go to the right source that has the available data. Finding data still requires knowing which source to use and which document contains the right information. Google gets you close but not all the way.

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