Five Search Skills

19Aug10

What are the essential skills involved in search? In an (excellent) Berkely lecture series about search hosted by Marti Hearst, which is available online as podcast, Google’s HCI reasearcher Dan Russel gives a guest lecture about users’ sense making while searching. This is a tricky problem because users express their searches in just a couple of keywords while they could mean many different things. One of the topics Russel discusses is the skills that people need to search effectively. Based on his experience at Google, Russel distinguishes 5 skills that are important for search. Possibly the list is important for those who want to improve their searching and for those combating the digital divide (in this case between people who can search and those who can’t). Here is the list:

1 ‘Pure’ engine technique

Given a search problem: can you create a suitable query? Do you know ‘advanced’ features like using pluses, minuses and double quotes?

2 Information mapping knowledge

You need knowledge about what information can be found online (and what not), when you are searching. The example Russel gives is reverse dictionaries (that give you the word based on a description). But a more mundane example would be to find a postal code belonging to a street address. As soon as you know there is a database online with that information, this search becomes a lot easier.

3 Domain knowledge

Search becomes better if you are specific about what you are searching for. So you need knowledge of the domain (language and ontologies). You need to speak the language of the people you are searching for. A programming expert may be able to find debugging information easily, while he struggles to find replacement parts for his car, where a car technician has the reverse.

4 Search strategy knowledge

An example of search strategy knowledge is knowing when to quit or change strategy. Knowing when to change between narrow searches and wide searches. Perhaps also being up to set up search steps such as starting with research on Wikipedia to learn the language for a specific query.

5 Information quality assessment.

Is a webpage believable and trustworthy? Does the page present facts to support a belief, or to give an outline of a domain? Is a page scam or parody rather than real? For inexperienced searchers this is not trivial.

If you want to learn more: in a presentation on his website, Russel adds a sixth category to this list, and gives a many practical search tips.

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2 Responses to “Five Search Skills”


  1. 1 Collateral Damage of the Robots Race (on the Web) « @koenvanturnhout MacroBlog
  2. 2 Turkle’s Turn « @koenvanturnhout MacroBlog

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