Feeling Lost In A World Of Search Zombies

Maybe I’m getting more removed from mainstream search. I know that some aspects of online searching can be complex, and depending on the uniqueness of some disciplinary databases (think about using financial screening tools in NetAdvantage or ValueLine Research Center) search can reach the extremes of complexity. But I would never have thought to associate the word “complex” with three basic search functions: formulating a search question; evaluating the results; and revising the search strategy. True, these basic skils are hardly intuitive for college students, but it certainly seems within their ability to learn – and I know that many have. So I was surprised to read this in a recent Jakob Nielsen column:

How difficult is it to perform a search on Google? I’m not talking about the challenge of formulating a good query, interpreting the results, or revising your search strategy to reap better results. Those are all very complicated research skills, and few people excel at them.

Complicated research skills? If you take away those basic skills what is left to a search? Have we created a generation of search zombies who listlessly tap away at the keyboard with no strategy at all just hoping they’ll find some information, and then mindlessly settle for whatever their first Google page yields? On the positive side, this suggests to me that librarians are among the few professionals who do excel at these tasks. While it’s great to know we have an increasingly rare skill , I’d feel much better if, as a profession, we were making greater progress in helping more people to develop these basic search skills, or getting more recognition for what we can do.

This leaves me with two thoughts. First, if excellence in navigating the complexity of search (and mind you that Nielsen isn’t talking about library databases – he’s just referring to search engines) is a rarified skill, why the heck can’t we leverage our expertise to raise our profile in society. You would think that the ability to cut through the web wasteland would be a prized skill that people would seek out. Second, if everyone other than librarians lack these skills, then the state of searching and the public’s research ability must be far worse than we might have imagined. Perhaps the “good enough” (or is it now “barely good enough”) mentality has finally turned the masses into search zombies. What’s the cure for that?

5 thoughts on “Feeling Lost In A World Of Search Zombies

  1. “a generation of search zombies who . . . mindlessly settle for whatever their first Google page yields”

    According to the article, that description is actually *optimistic.* Nielsen says that in his most recent usability study, only 76% of the users were able to complete a Google search — that is, only 3 in 4 people were actually able to find and access the Google search box and successfully type in a search.

  2. Maybe it’s just too hard to buy a suit at Banana Republic for the citizenry to be considered literate, but I’m leery of people who sell usability by telling us x% of people can’t search. I think the public is actually better at it than this guy claims. He does, after all, have a product to sell, and he’s selling it to people who want to sell more product. This sounds like classic discourse of fear to me. Can people find information and evaluate it? Often. Maybe not with all the sophistication we do. But this is not data that I would personally rely on.

    But then, I think Johnny can read.

  3. Heh, heh. What do you call a zombie who doesn’t know s/he is a zombie? That’s what I think is going on here. I teach a graduate-level information literacy course for new graduate students. Most of them can’t put together a decent (read: logical and without extraneous junk) search strategy to save their you know whats. But engines are good enough that their mostly-natural-language-keyword searches are returning some *decent* results. So as a result, these folks think their search skills are excellent.

    I don’t try to do brain surgery, but that’s because I know I can’t. But if I woke up tomorrow thinking for some reason that I was the world’s most excellent brain surgeon…

  4. ahh.
    the computers are thinking.
    so why should we think?

    i’ve found that searching for particular bits of information
    can be a process of brute force repetition, trail and error,
    and patient retrospection. not really a question of training
    or intelligence but discipline. its more zen than anything else.

    now as far as the zombies are concerned…

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