Thursday, June 22, 2006

The Never Ending Wonders of Google

I followed up on Google Scholar with an article I came across by James Caufield, Where did Google Get Its Value, which is not only fascinating and thought-provoking, but also forced me to think of the search engine within the library domain, not as a complement to the electronic and hardcopy collections, but ultimately as a "predecessor" of Google.Whether Google's success is based on the shoulders of librarianship is certainly up for debate (one in which I'd like to reserve front row seats for), it does offer food for thought in how we use and perceive Google and search engines. Here is what Caufield says are the strengths and weaknesses of Google:

(1) Better Indexing – As Caufield argues, “Google brings a library value to the web environment [by] improved access through better Indexing." I'm certainly much more enlightened now on the mechanics of how Google works. (So that's what separates Google from the rest. . . ). Indeed, while other websites blindly ranks the relevance/importance of a website based on the number of key terms that a website has, Google uses a unique algorithm that ranks webpages based on the links that it has to other relevant websites. In many ways, this is almost as if the internet is "peer-reviewed," and relevance is constantly upheld by other websites. Whereas websites can get away on other search engines by simply padding their websites with any key terms to cover the wide spectrum of subjects, Google restricts this practice. If you highlight the rest of this line, you'll know what I mean. (See, you use the entire dictionary just to fill up entire pages with words! How ingenious yet devious!)

(2) Better Access through Simple and Disinterested User Interface - Instead of urging the user to stay within the same page for the purposes of advertising and data collection, Google erased this questionable practice when it introduced its plain and simple search engine box. What this did was improve access, and allowed the user to obtain information in a much timely fashion. (In other words, it made thing quick and tidy).

(3) Google Brings the Library Value of Unbiased Selection to the Web Environment - Unlike other web search engines, Google didn't accept any advertising fees. (Hence, the simple user interface). What this did was that content from its searches were uncorruptable, since all materials were on equal footing -- one didn't and couldn't pay money to get material slotted to a higher ranking.

(4) Google Produces Better Access through Uncorrupted Indexing - With some controversy, Google also "punishes" websites that try to manipulate and break the Google PageRank algorithm. So-called Search Engine Optimization plays by Google's rules and increases the ranking of webpages by creating inbound links. However, Google counters such moves by manipulating its own algorithms to match that of culprits. But in the end, who manipulates who? And at what cost? As the Machiavellian conundrum goes, "Does the end justify the means?"

(5) The Reference Interview - This one caught me offguard. However, Google apparently processes a reference transaction very much like a librarian by having cookies attached to every user. By having a history of the searches made by a user, Google has a better and more focused understanding of the user's need.

(1) Privacy! - Not surprisingly, with cookies come problems of privacy. Indeed, one can see how Google can keep track of search histories simply by having it up on the RSS feeds. It's widely available for anyone to see his or her own searches. Which is nice if one is comfortable with it; however, if users share the same computers (or is unaware that they are), then privacy issues can certainly emerge.

Interestingly, I have not been entirely aware of the conveniences of Google until only quite recently. For years, I have preferred due to its familiarity (it's been around since 1994). While countless search engines have come and gone, Yahoo! has always stayed faithfully by my side throughout my online experiences. Moreover, not only has it been quite consistent with its user interface throughout its existence, it has a handy indexing system that separates different subjects for the user - not that anyone really uses it. . . ) But nonetheless, Google is the preferred choice of most users, and it seems as if it is here to stay for quite a while. Which leads me to a short anecdote. During an interview, the librarian asked me what search engine I prefer using. Naturally (and naively) I stood up for Yahoo! However, my reasoning was illogical in that I admitted that I liked it for nostalgic purposes. Hindsight is always 20/20, but if I had another chance. . .

1 comment:

Dean Giustini said...

Allan -
Keep in mind context when you assess search tools. In other words, how would your assessment in your last two posts change if you were to contextualize reference requests into humanities or medicine?

Is Google scholar helpful in the latter? Not very much in the humanities. Dean