Search for the answer, not the question

Tuesday, March 29th 2011

I don’t listen to a lot of podcasts, but I try to make time every week to fit in This Week in Google. Leo Laporte, Jeff Jarvis and Gina Trapani always have interesting takes on wide-ranging web issues (the show’s scope often wanders quite a bit broader than the title implies).

Last week they had on Andy Carvin as a guest. Andy works for NPR, and has been curating a fascinating and informative collection of resources on the current Mid-East unrest via twitter. Andy talks a lot about just how he curates this list: how he’s built his network, verified sources, all the standard marks of good journalism. At one point discussion moves toward just how Andy searches for information on ‘happening now’ breaking news style events on twitter. Essentially, he puts himself in the mindset of the tweeter present at the event – what are the standard ways people react to extraordinary situations? He searches for phrases like (pardon my French) “Holy shit” or other expletives in conjunction with topical keywords. Looking for witnesses to the Japan earthquake, he had success with phrases like “What the hell was that?”.

This is exactly how I taught my INLS 501 students to search Google last semester, and likely will again this fall: Assume the answer to your question is out there, and think about how the answer might have been written. This is especially when dealing with factual questions of a slightly oddball nature. Here’s the example I used in class:

I remember a real reference question from when I was young. I wasn’t the asker, but must have been waiting in line behind whoever was: “How many windows are there in the White House?”

In the time before Google, I remember the librarian tracking down photos of the White House from each side and helping the patron count them up. (I’m not sure why this stuck with me – maybe the extraordinary level of service?)

Today I would run this Google search: “there are * windows in the White House”, or variations on that phrase. Putting the sentence in quotes returns only that exact phrase. Using the * inside the quotes means I’ll get the exact phrase with any word or number standing in for the wildcard instead. In this case, I see a few sites that tell me there’s 147 windows. I still have to evaluate the quality of those sources, of course, and maybe try variations on the phrase like “the White House has * windows” to cross check. But that’s still a lot easier than counting from photos :)

I just envisioned the answer as I’d write it, and let the search engine fill in the blanks. Of course there’s countless other possible searches to get to this kind of answer, but this is still my favorite method.

Back to my original rambling – Andy Carvin is a very smart man, and you should give that episode of twig a listen. There’s tons of stuff that’s likely of interest to information science-minded folks covered within.

29. March 2011 by Chad Haefele
Categories: HowTo, Libraries/Info Sci, Links, Ramblings, Tech | 1 comment