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I search, you search, everybody's different search

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Google just made a big change, and pretty much nobody noticed.

Search Engine Land has an article up that explains what's going on and why you should care. In a nutshell, Google is now remembering the kind of results that you like and is going to show you more results in the same vein. (More on how it works here.) This happens even if you don't have a Google account, or even if you're not signed in to it. That's the biggest change (personalized search has already been in place for those signed in to their Google accounts for quite a while).

While this is convenient, sure, there are a couple of things to think about here. First, just because you Googled something and the result that you liked was third down from the top doesn't mean that you can tell your friend to go Google the same search term and expect her to see the same hits. We're going to have to get more precise when we direct others to information that we've found through Google, because they might not get the same results that we did.

Another concern is that this could lead to us all being more and more walled into our own comfortable little corners and worldviews on the web. According to the first article, Google's product manager, Johanna Wright, says that they want the results "in personalized search to be skewed to the user, but we don’t want that to mean the rest of the web is unavailable to [the user].” I'm glad that they're trying to integrate tailoring PLUS diversity, but I have to wonder how well they can pull of both of those goals at the same time. And think about it: if a website doesn't show up in your Google search, just how likely are you to find it? Not very, would be my guess. (If you're not already incorporating other search engines into your routine to get a better-rounded set of results, now would be a great time to start. Try directories like Yahoo! Directory or About.com, too.) So if Google is only "telling you want you want to hear," you could miss out on the other side of the argument. In a liberal arts university setting, where critical thinking is a major goal, we need to be giving thought to this possibility.

And... then there's just the creepy factor. Google already knows pretty much everything about me, between my Gmail, my Blogger, my Google Reader account, and all of the other G-tools I use on a daily basis. We're all making a deal and hoping it's not with the devil. But we're putting a lot of information into Google's hands and a lot of faith in their promise to not "be evil." Search Engine Land compares this new personalized search to an "eerie librarian" who remembers everything you've ever said or done in the last six months. Hands up, who wants me to have THAT kind of memory?

Just some food for thought.

Free files online that you can use

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Yesterday, ProfHacker did a great post about finding content with particular kinds of Creative Commons licenses. If you watched the video I posted last week about copyright and fair use, you might be interested in finding media that you can use ethically without having to jump through a lot of hoops.

Here's the original ProfHacker post about finding image files that you're allowed to use: http://www.profhacker.com/2009/10/20/where-all-the-purty-pictures-come-from-flickr-creative-commons/

And here's yesterday's post, which explains the process a little more: http://www.profhacker.com/2009/11/10/how-to-find-free-online-content-that-youre-allowed-to-re-use/

Happy hunting, scavenging, and re-purposing!

Search engine 'mindshare'

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Top 3 online scientific search resources: librarians VS scientists. Click for larger view
According to a 2004 presentation at a National Federation of Abstracting and Information Services (NFAIS) conference, there's a huge discrepancy between librarian's percetions of a "good" online science resource as compared to scientist's perceptions. Why is this? I have a few theories... Read on.

Theory one: the path of least resistance is the path most researchers will take. This one's pretty straightforward. If a resource is easy to use and still returns acceptable results, it stands to reason that users will gravitate to this "easier" resource

Theory two: library information is scattered amongst multiple databases each with it's own interface. Think about it... Even at a relatively small school like Seton Hill, we have multiple interfaces to deal with. Imagine a large library at the likes of Penn State, Ohio State, University of Michingan, etc. Timothy Burke, history professor at Swarthmore, in his piece called "Burn the Catalog" offers the following comments relevant to these multiple interfaces:

Electronic catalogs, wherever you go in the academic world, have become a horrible crazy-quilt assemblage of incompatible interfaces and vendor-constrained listings. Working through Tripod´┐Żs article and specialized subject indices, in a relatively small collection, you still have to navigate at least five completely different interfaces for searching.

Theory three: Google and Yahoo! not only work, they work well (especially for scientific and technical information). My gosh..... Could this be? I think so... I've heard many librarians criticize Google from the direction of the number of hits that a typical search returns -- "A search on 'hurricane' returns 52,800,000 results! How can we make sense of that???!!!". I would argue that the number of hits is irrelevant -- most people don't ever go beyond the first results screen anyhow. I'm more impressed with the fact that among the first 10 results, there are links to the National Hurricane Center, FEMA (Federal Emergency Management Agency), and NOAA (Natrional Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration) websites.

While I'm certainly not encouraging users to rely exclusively on Google, Yahoo! et al, I do believe there are some lessons to be learned here.

Simple is as simple does?

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Elyssa Stern Cahoy, a librarian at Penn State, put this clip together in an attempt to illustrate some of the frustrations that often accompany seemingly simple, straightforward library searches. In responding to a few criticisms of the presentation on a library-related discussion list, Cahoy stated:


I (a librarian) made this video to show the varied paths that our users can take when searching for materials and the many dead ends they often encounter. This video was part of a presentation I gave at this year's CIC library conference on making our library web interfaces simpler, more intuitive and more educational.

I don't feel that the search choices made in the video were 'mistakes'. Good searching is often messy and involves much trial and error. I teach my students that there are no 'mistakes' in online searching---only learning opportunities that help the user construct a better search the next time around.

That said, I think it is up to us, as instruction librarians, to help design the next generation of library interfaces. We need to help reduce the multiple screens, clicks and dead ends that many of our users currently face. As Roy Tennant said, "I wish I had known that the solution for needing to teach our users how to search our catalog was to create a system that didn't need to be taught." (Library Journal, 11/15/05)

We need to go beyond viewing our library web presence as a front end for our search engines and an organizational tool, and develop it wholly as an intuitive learning application and as a teaching opportunity.

I couldn't agree with her more.

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