Sep. 21, 2006

Single Box Searching

After reading Google’s manuals on The Essentials of Google Search, Advanced Search Made Easy, and Advanced operators and then putting these instructions into practice, it is clear that a multiple-box search is the most practical solution when searching for specific information on the Internet. Why then does Google’s homepage have only a single search box? Presumably the results that Google’s search engine turn up are relevant enough that an appropriate link will appear on the first page. Many people might not want to spend time filling out multiple boxes. There is also a visual appeal to having a single box prompting you for information. Nevertheless, it appears that an advanced search is more effective for sustained, specific research questions needing more reliable sources than Wikipedia.

An advanced search, whether using the advanced operators in a single-box search or simply using the multiple-box search option, has the advantage of clarifying the searcher’s intentions, which is something that no search engine can do unless it gets inside your head. The initial attempt to use Google’s advanced operators successfully improved the quality of the results that were returned, which was expected after using search engines for gated scholarly databases. (A more quantitative indicator of the search’s improved success was the fact that the results numbered in the hundred thousands rather than the ten millions, but who ever goes through more than the first hundred links, or even the first page of results, anyways?) Without consistently using the operators in the single-box search though, these terms could be easily forgotten (which was my own case). Thankfully, the advanced search page offers the exact same options, using multiple boxes to prompt the user for specific information about the subject being searched. In either case though, search results dramatically improved with the addition of more qualifiers for Google to use.

Google services such as Froogle and Google Scholar were effective for further improving search results, with the number of results decreasing to the thousands or even hundreds using a detailed advanced search. Searching for items on Froogle worked better than finding articles on Google Scholar. Perhaps this reflects the gated nature of a great deal of academic research. The use of Find Forward’s search grid made viewing a larger number of search results easier; however, the findings did not appear any more relevant, and the use of operators did not seem to work particularly well despite the fact that Find Forward makes use of Google search results.

From a researcher’s point of view, this exercise indicates that not only is it useful to employ an advanced-search option when looking for information on the Internet, but also that it is critical to know as detailed an idea as possible about the thing or subject being studied in advance of using the Internet. Such information can dramatically improve the relevance of the results that Google comes up with. It is instructive to know that certain gated databases, such as Historical Abstracts, only have a multiple-box search engine. Furthermore, it is necessary to use a number of search engines (to cover both public and gated websites) in order to comprehensively discover and evaluate all of the resources available on the Internet. Single-box searches are simply not the most effective way to uncover information on the Internet.

With the limitations of a single-box search in mind, a public historian should be mindful of the fact that many people will only use the single box to look for historical information. It is therefore important that research, exhibits, and databases made available for public use are presented in a clear, user-friendly manner. Additionally, information on a homepage should clearly convey the website’s purpose in order to be show up as more relevant on other search engines.

The fact is that the single box has a lot of appeal for people looking for information. Why? We’re in a rush.