What Search Means To Us

by Ruud Hein September 12th, 2008 

Active in the world of search from the perspective of pushers, people trying to push a web site up in ranking, we tend to do two things with search engines: take them for granted and find ways to use information and observations about them in such a way that we can push more sites up in their rankings.

We look at them from the search engine optimization angle, from a marketing angle.

From the user side we're geeks. Part of the 49% of internet users who use a search engine on a typical day, you're already part of a minority – albeit a large one. But within this group of regular users we're the power users. We use operators during searches and have others wonder how they can speak with one at Google.

We – bloggers, online marketers, SEO'ers, SEM'ers, spammers and what not – we are the digerati. We live what's coming.

But what is that exactly? Or rather: how is that? How is it different from 10 years ago? 20 years ago?

On this Friday, one that is all rainy and gray and autumn-y here way up north, I'd like to pour us a coffee and kick that back and forth a bit. I don't think we've time to explore all in this one sitting but why limit ourselves? We can come back later on, right?

Search & Research

It's not long ago that every search, even the web-based ones, meant research. Access to AltaVista and HotBot didn't mean instant answers to spur-of-the-moment searches.

Many searches led to SERP's filled with spam. In order to find what you were searching for you had to become a pioneer of the multi-word query, add modifiers. You had to be willing to go beyond page number; way beyond.

I think that has changed sufficiently that the top 1000 queries people come up with give pretty reliable, usable results: the first 10-30 results will most likely be at least "good enough".

Instant Search

The aspect, the ability, of instant search is something that has to change the landscape; changes the landscape.

Sitting at the telephone, chatting about whatever with whomever anyone can now be as knowledgeable or as informed as a member of a support team who has access to a knowledge base.

Someone names someone: and you can know who it is right now.

Someone quotes someone: and you can find out from whom right now.

Someone goes somewhere: and you see where that is right now.

Information & Knowledge

This has to impact people who need information (students, consumers, lawyers, investigators, etc.), those who facilitate information (telephone operators, librarians, archivists, etc.), and those who work with and transform information (knowledge workers … of which you are one).


Merlin Mann on 43folders defines knowledge work as a Black Box job


Of these 3 groups I see benefits for the knowledge workers, a threat for information facilitators, and risk for information seekers.

Why?

Over the past 20-30 years the definitions of what is information and what is knowledge have changed regularly.
Academically you often encounter a "knowledge as information" approach.

The two, information and knowledge, touch each other and overlap each other so much that often they indeed do seem and one the same. Yet intuitively, however dangerous a path that might be sometimes, we recognize a difference between the two as we acknowledge the existence of both.

I think that knowledge goes beyond singular information. It's "knowing the lay of the land". Having a mental map of information and information points, if you will.

"But can we consider knowledge in a different light, as design rather than information? That would mean viewing pieces of knowledge as structures adapted to a purpose, just as a screwdriver or a sieve are structures adapted to a purpose. You know your friend's phone number–so you can call when you need to. Moreover, your knowledge is well-adapted to the purpose; the number is only seven digits long and well-rehearsed, so you can remember it readily. You know the layout of your town or city–so you can get to work, to your home, to the airport, wherever you want to go. Again, your knowledge is well-adapted; if you have lived in a place a while, you probably have a rather comprehensive "mental map" of the area that you can apply not only in finding places you normally go to but in navigating to new locations in the same area. Similar points can be made about knowing the rules of chess or your favorite foods."
Knowledge as Design (1986) DN Perkins

The accumulation of information, one's perception on it, one's reasoning about it, grows a wealth of knowledge. "Knowledge about the facts" goes beyond simply being aware of their existence: it's understanding them.

In such a terrain knowledge workers walk through the whole city, exploring every nook and cranny. They know what is where and how it relates to each other. They know not just a street, a shop, an address, a telephone number; they know and understand the city itself.

At the other hand of the spectrum we would have information seekers provided with instant information. In a terrain setting this is akin to teleportation. These people have the ability to arrive at their destination but have 1) no idea how they arrived there, 2) no idea of their surroundings (all other data points).

Meanwhile the information facilitators, the city guides, have no reason for existence. Or a diminished one. The worker's knowledge of the lay of the data land and the information seeker's ability to hop around in it at will remove the need for an in-between.

Put another way, facilitators hand out calculators that help seekers to the Final Answer that 8^0=1 … but it's only the mathematician who understands why that is so.

Information is the bricks the road of knowledge is made of. Having direct and immediate access to the Final Answer reduces the amount of information we're exposed to. Instead of plowing through numerous books, flipping magazine pages, reading bits about this and that, we jump right away to The End.

Many of those Final Answers combined will again form knowledge, no doubt, but it does strike me as if, ironically, in the Information Age a wealth of information is tossed out, bypassed.

The knowledge worker image comes from a slide from Merlin Mann about attention management. The lady browsing a table with books in Sant Jordi, Barcelona, is a wonderfully recognizable shot by Nacente. The coffee was a delicious Van Houtte San Fransisco espresso. Background music provided by Radio Paradise.

Ruud Hein

My paid passion at Search Engine People sees me applying my passions and knowledge to a wide array of problems, ones I usually experience as challenges. People who know me know I love coffee.

Ruud Hein

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14 Responses to “What Search Means To Us”

  1. Don't you however feel, I repeat, feel that there is an overload of information and knowledge? I find this the most astounding development and with mobile computing now possible, instant access to the web makes conversation stilted. This ties up with what we discussed yesterday about ADD. There is just too much chatter about too many things!

  2. Metaspring says:

    Excellent post; yes search has improved immeasurably in the past 10 years, becoming more relevant and apposite to what one is searching for. Plus what the internet has done is make available any and all kinds of knowledge so that as discount shopping said, there is an overload almost a bombardment of information.

  3. In 10 or even 20 years to come, search engine will be very much different from what it is today. Results will be more relevant and manipulation of search results might not be as easy as now. It only means one thing to SEO-ers: To rank as high as possible.

    Rif Chia.

  4. J.R. Jackson says:

    I would like to see the search engines 'sort' the results by 'date.' I hate when I'm searching for something and they pull up a blog post from 5-years ago or something.

    Just my 2cents.

    J.R.

  5. Utah SEO says:

    Good post. Long live natural language search! Google thinks they have 90% of relevancy figured out. B.S. We'll see where it goes from here.

  6. Lee says:

    If knowledge is now available at your finger tips with virtually no effort required on your part, where will new knowledge come from? Is it the end of creativity or will easy access increase creativity? Will it be easier to stand on the shoulders of giants because you don't have waste time climbing to that level? I can't wait to see how this plays out.

  7. Ruud Hein says:

    @Comparison Shopping @metaspring I'm not a firm believer in the information overload principle. With more books and TV coming out than anyone could handle, no-one was complaining, right? It's rare that I share a link to my personal blog but earlier this year I shared my take on this in surfing vs. information overload.

    @Lee Those are good questions you raise. I might incorporate some of those in future explorations on the subject. For the moment I think that direct access to any answer helps solve very specific problems faster, easier; but it causes a slowdown in familiarity, in knowledge of, the subject. Step-by-step photographic instructions on how to change a sparkplug will never beat taking an engine apart.

  8. kouji says:

    with information available the way it is, perhaps there will be more of a premium put on people who can cut through the chaff in order to find the most relevant pieces of information, as well as quickly digest said information.

    it's one thing to be able to find stuff, but it's quite another to be able to understand it, and apply it.

  9. Wii Boy says:

    That is a pretty deep post Ruud, I had to take up your suggestion and start with a coffee.

    My worry is that casual users will find it increasingly hard to find real information in the mire of the SEO minority trying to get their pages to the top of the engines.

  10. Yes I agree with the date thing. Some kind of special search should be decided by relevancy and date

  11. Eva White says:

    I so well relate to this post. I have been through all three stages of dealing with Knowledge. And yes my latest avtaar has been the most enjoyable.

  12. [...] kick in an open door, whether we think instant access to instant information is good or bad, beneficial or not, it's a fact of the [...]

  13. [...] That's an impressive break with our former information digestion when searching for economical transaction partners. Flip open a Yellow Pages, I just did, and you're pretty soon counting 30-40 telephone numbers there. That's on a page with several large ads. If you let your eye fall on the accompanying page you've scanned 60-80 entries. Let's put this another way: a side effect of using modern search engines is information reduction. [...]