This panel conducted an informal conversation (edited transcript below) addressing the questions of whether searchers are really finding what they are looking for and what new technologies are helping them.
How does your organization think about search and find?
EL: We think about search and find every day through the eyes of our users and partners. We look at usage data and do research.
MH: All of us think about search all the time.
EW: Search is hard because it starts in the authoring process. It is very far back when you get to the results, so it is very hard to control all the variables.
Can we do better?
SW: No, we can’t. It all comes down to a question of attitude. We have a sense of desperation that we are losing patrons every day and need to fix things. An attitude of assertiveness around the search infrastructure has caused difficulties. Staff must be nimble enough to move us forward.
How have user behaviors changed with the appearance of commercial search engines (i.e. Google)?
SW: Google sets the bar for what is necessary and what kinds of result sets are possible. We must find ways of building those into our own systems. Students are incredulous at our interfaces–“you expect me to do what?”.
EW: Now that we are serving a larger part of the information community, we have more masters than ever before, which makes the universe very complex. Many other things besides Google are influencing us. It is hard to know how to define success–you cannot sit with every user as they search.
EL: The Internet is available everywhere to everyone, so students cannot say that information does not exist. They are getting frustrated if they cannot find something. It is interesting that when they can’t find information, they don’t change the search; they just change where they go to search. So everything is harder, but there is also more opportunity.
MH: When we are developing a taxonomy, we monitor the search logs, and especially pay attention to what people ask for and get no hits.
EW: Students don’t necessarily know what they want. Analysis of search logs does not reveal success nor their desires.
We used to think full text search would solve some of these problems. Now there is growing belief that semantic tagging and taxonomies will help. Isn’t the problem that people don’t know how to say what they are looking for?
MH: They shouldn’t have to know that but should be able to enter the query in several ways and get the answer. Taxonomies help to resolve ambiguities.
What about metadata and its several types? Are we using it?
MH: Metadata has moved to meaning many things. For the library community, we have had some major collisions. We strive for a good definition of metadata.
EW: We would like to have self-identification from our searchers, but we do not think they would tolerate it. So we allow them to search as they wish and then ask them to limit it using the taxonomy.
Are alerting feeds and sharing results another form of discovery?
MH: Search is a many layered process with different algorithms to make it operational. These things happen at the user interface level.
EL: Every major publisher has a share icon within their platform, so users can share results with others. Should we be making sharing available to everyone? The social power of highly followed people has a large influence.
What is the future of user data within your systems? Will we see something like Amazon’s “people that bought this also bought…”?
SW: It is hard to give students just what they are looking for. In libraries, we have a strong cultural ethic towards privacy, so we will have to ask faculty and students if they wish to provide data on their searches and results.
MH: The data is in the search logs, so it is a matter of how long you keep it and what you do with it. Anybody using digital access by now ought to know that it is not necessarily private. The data is there; the question is who is mining it?
EW: People have privacy concerns until they receive information that they are interested in effectively. They may have problems more in principle than in practice.
MH: See this video for an excellent, funny (and frightening!) example of an fictional future abuse of privacy.
Don Hawkins blogs about conferences for Information Today and Against The Grain. He also maintains the Conference Calendar on the Information Today website and is the Editor of Personal Archiving: Preserving Our Digital Heritage, published by Information Today in 2013, and Co-Editor of Public Knowledge: Access and Benefits, published by Information Today in 2016. He received his Ph.D. degree from the University of California, Berkeley, and has worked in the information industry for over 45 years.