Search ugly, deliver pretty

When preparing for my part in the Search Skills Academy at Internet Librarian International, I was asked to come up with a couple of search tips (in addition to what I’d developed for Internet Librarian, downloadable here). As I thought about it, I realized that my biggest lesson from the last year could be summarized as “search ugly, deliver pretty”. What do I mean by that?

Search ugly: Many of us long-time info pros pride ourselves in the complexity of our search queries. Nested logic? Sure! Multiple adjacency operators? Bring ’em on! Internal truncation and field-delimited terms? Of course! We often try to find exactly what we are looking for, assuming that a well-constructed search ensures high-quality, comprehensive results. While these power search tools are useful in the professional online services such as ProQuest Dialog or LexisNexis, a better approach when searching open sources is to simplify, simplify, simplify.

Search engines are designed for the “average” query—who won the game last night? is the restaurant open now? what’s that new movie about? We’re more likely to get useful results if we keep our searches short and sweet, using words that are as specific as possible. Tips for building an “ugly” but useful query include:

  • Use words likely to show up on a useful page. For example, if you are looking for consumer attitudes toward hydraulic fracturing, search for the word fracking instead, since the latter is more likely to appear in non-technical writing. If you’re looking specifically for reports or other published material add filetype:pdf to your query and just retrieve PDF files.
  • Trust the search engine’s internal thesaurus. Search engines are able to include synonyms of common nouns, so there’s no need to include every possible way an idea would be expressed. Looking for trends in dogs involved in scent detection work? Just search for detection dogs; no need to include “canine”, “K9” or the names of individual breeds in your query.
  • Use your peripheral vision. When reviewing search results, watch for unexpected resources or an unusual way of phrasing the topic. Sometimes I run my search in Yippy, the privacy-oriented search engine that specializes in clustering results by concept, which gives me ideas on how to narrow or broaden my search query.

Deliver pretty: As Google is focusing on providing “zero-click” results that present the answer without the user needing to click a link, our clients are also expecting results that are easy to skim and understand. As much as we want to present our clients with all the great information we found and to describe the process of our research in exhaustive detail, we are battling TL;DR* (Too Long; Didn’t Read). We have to lighten up our deliverables—not by reducing the value of the information we are providing but by making it more approachable. Tips for making your deliverables prettier, and more valuable to your clients, include:

  • Put the answer at the top. “Based on our research, it appears that the market for widgets is largest in the southwest, with demand growing in the pacific northwest.” Yes, you’ll go into more detail in the next few paragraphs, but give a one- or two-sentence summary of what you found first.
  • Make it easy to navigate through the material you send your client. Use a hyperlinked table of contents, or provide extracts or summaries of each item, along with a link to the full text. In other words, provide a road map of the deliverable.
  • Ask your clients what format they prefer… and be prepared to be surprised. They may want a 10-minute briefing where you review what you found and they can ask questions to better understand what your findings mean. They may want a slide deck with the highlights of your research. Your goal is to make your results as frictionless as possible.
  • Be an information cartographer. As you were searching, you explored the information landscape—the peaks and valleys, the lush springs and the barren desert, the unexpectedly rich veins of information or the unanticipated gaps in knowledge. Tell a story about what your results mean and what you recommend for next steps.


*Much as the concept behind TL;DR depresses me, the correct use of a semicolon in an acronym fills my heart with joy.

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