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‘The Google-isation of [Re]search’

Went to a discussion on Wednesday (organised by SLA Europe and kindly sponsored by EBSCO) on “The Google-isation of [Re]search”. Really interesting talk – I don’t think I came away with anything particularly new, but it was good to hear a few people’s perspectives on the Google effect.

David Nicholas of UCL started by giving a brief overview of the Google generation research project. He admitted right at the start that he’d never tried to talk about it in just 15 minutes before, and it was indeed a very brief skate over some of the project findings. Interesting, but I would have liked to hear about it in more depth. He discussed the information seeking and use habits of the Google generation (which he pointed out is not limited to any particular age group – we are all the Google generation now). Deep log analysis had revealed that information users are pragmatic and direct – they will find what they need and then leave, without “hanging around” in any particular online space – and tend to browse “horizontally”, skim-reading a very wide range of materials but not going into any particular depth. He noted that people assume this is new behaviour, but that we actually have no way of knowing how people use(d) non-digital information: we assume that, for example, when someone checks out a book they read the whole thing in depth; but can’t actually verify this the way we can with digital materials. It’s entirely possible that horizontal browsing has always been the norm.

One of David’s points that I found interesting (which Sara at Uncooked Data also picked up on – incidentally I’d highly recommend reading her summary of Wednesday’s event, it’s a lot more considered than mine!) was that students he had interviewed had described academic databases as a bit unwelcoming – as if no one else had been there before. It transpired that they meant that there was no way for users to communicate with each other, comment on what was there and share recommendations. He mentioned by way of analogy a book returns trolley – the books on the trolley are rarely shelved because people like to pick up what other people have already read. People will trust recommendations from their peers. I actually find that quite an interesting idea (it made me think of some of the interesting things Huddersfield University have done with their OPAC) – although I don’t know how integrating that sort of thing into, say, Science Direct would work for anyone past undergraduate level. There is probably a risk that simply following recommendations would lead to people ignoring potentially useful information because they were focusing on what was popular, as Sara also suggests in the blog post linked to above. I don’t see that as an insurmountable problem though – following recommendations is a good starting point for most people, and surely it’s the objective of information literacy training to make sure that people don’t think it’s anything more than a starting point.

Kathy Jacob had the next fifteen-minute slot, to talk about the recent implementation of a federated search engine at Pinsent Masons. She talked about the demand for a single search interface for all of their products, which would search multiple sources quickly, be intuitive to use and have a clean, uncluttered initial search screen – in other words, something that looked and worked just like Google. I can certainly see the appeal of this – most specialist legal databases are not intuitive to use, and all have their individual quirks that you have to learn your way around, something most lawyers don’t have the time or the patience to do. The implementation has apparently been a success: Kathy reported that use of all of their paid-for databases has gone up by 15-20% on average, with the biggest increases in use for the databases which were most difficult to search. She also pointed out that the group which makes the most use of the tool is in fact the information services team – so even experienced searchers find the federated search easier to use.

Kathy did point out that the tool is only really useful for “quick and dirty” searches – for anything in-depth you still need to go to individual sources. I wondered if this in itself might cause problems: if the users get used to this easy interface, they’ll may be inclined to assume that the results returned are all there is to find (similar to the “first page of Google hits” approach). Kathy mentioned that the info services team don’t offer training on the federated search engine (she expressed the opinion that people should know how to search. If your product is aimed at average users but you need to train people on how to search it then your search screen is too complicated. I’m not totally sure I agree with this, but I see her point); but they do give extensive information literacy training. She explained the necessity of ensuring that new trainees understand that using poor-quality information can have career-limiting results, usually by relating a few scare stories of what’s happened when past trainees have tried to do all their research on Google.

The final speaker was Roger James, Director of Information Systems at the University of Westminster. I have to say I didn’t really think much of his talk – he made some very sensible points, such as the need to educate users about when to use Google and when not to; and the fact that Google allows for serendipity, where most paid-for databases don’t – but he said all this with the air of one imparting pearls of wisdom to Luddites who thought Google was the devil’s work. I think he badly misjudged his audience. For example, he started off by asking how many of us had our own custom databases in our workplaces – nearly all of us raised our hands; then asking how many of us had used those databases that day. He then looked shocked – and seemed a bit thrown off course – when nearly all of us raised our hands again. All of this made me wonder if he actually realised he was talking to librarians, or if he’d ever spent much time talking to librarians.

I had no problem with his central argument – that it’s not an either/or situation, Google is a useful tool alongside other information sources – but I thought it was a little obvious and frankly, a little patronising. I don’t believe many librarians actually see Google as the enemy. The key issue to most librarians is not, as Roger seemed to think, how to stop users from searching Google; its how to make sure they know when it’s appropriate to, and what other information sources may be better suited to their needs.

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