September 29, 2006 4:00 AM PDT
Most reliable search tool could be your librarian
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Search engines say the situation isn't so dire. The general public is getting more sophisticated in its search skills, said Tim Mayer, senior director of product management on Yahoo's search team.
"The amount of keywords people are entering is growing" to between two and three words, he said. "Search engine quality is improving and people are generally finding what they're looking for more often."
However, without some universal agreement on categorizing content, Web searches will always be lacking, some experts say.
"On the Web, every word is a keyword. It's such a mess," said Jason Strauss, head librarian at the Wright Institute, a graduate school of psychology in Berkeley, Calif. "When I use Google Search I almost always limit my search to the top-level domains dot-edu or dot-org. They usually have higher-quality information."
In addition, search engines also are only offering up a fraction of all the information out there. There is still the relatively untapped so-called "deep Web" of information behind corporate firewalls and password-protected Web sites. To get to the information, people have to know where the sites are and often have to pay to subscribe.
The definitive index and abstract database for psychology academics is PsycInfo, which provides access to journals, conference proceedings and other relevant information and allows users to search specific fields like "author" and "title," Strauss said. Keywords are selected by editors from a set list of terms.
"You end up with the ability to do a 'perfect search.' You get everything about the subject and nothing that is not related to it," Strauss said. "Using the Web, you are trying to think of how other people are phrasing things" to come up with keywords, which leads to mixed results, he added.
Even the federal government is addressing the Web search problem; it is trying to make it easier for citizens to track government spending. President Bush signed a bill into law this week that calls for the creation of an online database that will let people type in names of companies and states, for example, to search for government grants and contracts. The information is already on the Web, but people don't know where to find it.
A lot of people don't know that they can get access to much of the walled-off information in specialized databases for free if they have a public library card, said Price, of Ask.com and ResourceShelf.
Other helpful sites are the Librarians Internet Index, which offers quick lists of carefully vetted, reliable Web sites, the Internet Public Library and Infomine, a collection of scholarly resources on the Internet, according to Price.
With the advent of the Web and search engines, people's interaction with libraries has changed. While the number of reference questions at California public libraries has been declining, the difficulty of the questions has increased, said Ira Bray, a technology consultant at the California State Library.
Gone are the days of calling or visiting the library to find out a famous person's birthplace or the gross national product for the U.S. in 1972--you can get that in two seconds on Google. But you'll need more than a search engine to figure out, for example, what factors were at play in the growth of the U.S. economy that year, said Lee Rainie, director of the Pew Internet & American Life Project, which conducts research on the impact of the Internet on Americans.
"The idea of the 1950s librarian, that's outdated," said Sarah Houghton-Jan, information Web services manager at the San Mateo County Library in Northern California. "You find people who are expert at searching the Web and using online tools; high-level information experts instead of someone who just stamps books at the checkout desk."
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