I bet you’re probably a skilled online searcher—if you’re reading this, you might even be an expert at online search. But improving your search skills is one of those things that will pay dividends way beyond your expectations. That’s what this post is really all about—how to be much better at digging up the content you need to find fast, accurately, and with skill.
This is the premise of the new book, The Joy of Search: A Google insider’s guide to going beyond the basics (MIT Press, 2019). There are the tips and tricks that you’d expect from a book like this—the tactics that great online searchers know, but there’s much more to know about search than knowing about when to use double quotes. That’s just a little tactic you should have under your fingertips. Instead, knowing the big strategies of search can shift your searches from merely okay to truly great.
At the heart of this book are 17 compelling search stories—each one starting with a question that you (or a student) might have, something that you find curious or startling about the world. How you go about answering that question is the story for each chapter.
In the spirit of Connected Learning, one of the most important strategic things great searchers do is to rely on their personal set of connections to amplify the range and scope of what they can find. This message resonates throughout all of the stories.
As you know, serendipity can be amplified by social networking—just letting people know of your interests can open up connections you might not have known about. Networking casts a broad net on your behalf and suddenly you’ve got dozens of eyes and ears scanning the world around you for your research questions. It pays to have friends.
For instance, I’d mentioned my interest in Mudejar stars (a kind of Moorish visual design element) to a couple of friends, and sure enough, just a few days later, one of them emailed me this link to a podcast on that very topic. (To be honest, I hadn’t thought of looking for a podcast about Mudejar stars—I’d assumed it was just too obscure a topic for someone to dedicate an entire podcast. How wrong I was!)
The point is, social media and social networks are big players when researching online content, if only for the powerful effect that recommendations have on people. When you’re doing online research, your social network (and implicitly, all of the social media systems and tools) can be an incredibly valuable ally in your research. Your Personal Learning Network is the golden circle of friends. The players and the platforms may change over time, but it’s worth cultivating your personal network of friends-who-know that you can ask for help. That network should transcend the particularities of whatever platform happens to be in fashion at the time. (Anyone remember the MySpace social media site? You still have those friends, right?) In my studies of really extraordinarily skilled researchers, one striking thing I noticed was that they all had (and used) deep and broad Rolodexes, or what would today be called “social contact lists.”
Writing a mini-essay is useful to organize your thoughts
A useful strategic trick to get to a deeper understanding of your research question is to write up a mini-essay that presents all of your information and frames what it is you’re trying to figure out. I’m 99% convinced that having to write something down (and have that writeup make sense) is a great method to making sure that all of your ducks are in a row. If you’re being honest with yourself, you’ll pick up all KINDS of mistakes in your reasoning and data.
Naturally, the simplest, fastest way I know to write a mini-essay is a social one: send an email to a friend who shares your interest—ideally, someone who doesn’t know TOO much about the topic so you’re forced to explain the idea in some detail. In my case, I bombard friends with emails that start out “I bet you didn’t know that…” and then I write on and on about. The key thing is that in order to write that mini-essay (or email), YOU have to make sense of what you’ve found. You won’t just write gibberish to a friend (at least, I don’t recommend that), but you’ll see any gaps or inconsistencies in what you’ve discovered.
Content continues to grow in quantity and kind
The Joy of Search is also about the future of online content and how to be future-proof in your online research skills.
There’s every reason to believe that content will continue to grow, both in the amount of online content and the different kinds of content. A perpetual challenge as new kinds of resources become available will be how well they can be indexed. Although it doesn’t make much sense to create a new kind of online content that can’t be found by search engines or online catalogs, it happens every day, leaving unhappy researchers having to manually track down the content without the aid of an online index. One side effect is that media literacy will be an ever-evolving concept. How media is used will continue to change, and as new kinds of media evolve, so too will the way they’re used.
Content continues to splinter
It’s not much of a prediction to point out the obvious— new content providers will arise, new media types will continue to be invented, and walled-gardens of all kinds will continue to operate and flourish. The side effect of these forces is that searchable content will continue to be in unsearchable silos. The good news here is that there are also shifts towards increasingly open access publication. But as the publishing industry continues to search for an effective funding model, we, the researchers, should expect information to still be in repositories, some of which are open, some of which are not. Some will require payment to read their content, others will be free and open to the public. The more you know about these trends, the more you know about what you can find and what’s possible to research online.
For instance, local historical societies and libraries often have great historical information. For more than one piece of research, I’ve used the “look for a county historical society” trick to locate a nearby cache of archival photos and materials. Keep that in mind when you’re searching for this kind of information. Often, their archival content is splintered offline or is difficult to search. A phone call and a visit in real-life will often give you great results through the help of friendly librarians and archivists.
But at the same time, one of the surprises (and delights) of my work has been learning about the vast quantities of information that’s available on an immense variety of topics. Want to learn about different diseases of abalone (Fungal? Viral? Bacterial?), it’s simple to do. How about dressage style of the 16th century? Sure. Not a problem. Want to see 19th century records from Ellis Island immigration? That’s simple too. There is just an amazing amount of content online.
In other words, the kinds of research that used to be a huge hassle is now fairly straightforward as more content becomes available. This stuff is either “born digital” content, or becomes available as older content is scanned and indexed. That’s how you can learn about 16th century Italian dressage; the Google Books project scanned and then indexed the original text. Sure, it’s in Renaissance Italian, but if you’re not up on that, at least you’ve got the pictures.
One of the consequences of this is that new content is popping up all the time—new web sites appear minute-by-minute (there were 1.3 million new website domain names registered in the first three months of 2017, up 3.7% from 2016 ), new online applications let us see content in new ways (such as the InformationIsBeautiful.net site, which specializes in this kind of seeing-in-new-ways of data, or Google Earth VR, which lets you fly through a 3D model of the Earth, including many city buildingscapes).
And the side effect of that is that you can’t really keep up-to-date on what’s newest and greatest in your field. Instead, you’ll have to keep your eyes open, and periodically search for new content in your area of interest. We have shifted into an age of information triage—separating out what’s useful and important from the stuff that isn’t.
These skills are something we should all command. Having the methods of online search, and understanding the range of what’s possible to search for—that’s a potent combination. That’s what these stories are all about. May you search bravely, with skill and alacrity in the future.
Guest blog post by Dan Russell