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An Egyptian Stumper For Google, Or Is It?

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A "simple" query that seems like a no-brainer for Google turns out to be an excellent illustration of why you can't find "everything" on the Internet and even when you can, the "answer" may not necessarily be correct.

A reader writes: Okay, here's the query. The student was studying ancient Egypt. As a part of her assignment,she had to find a recipe for egyptian funerary bread and bake some! Sounded like a good question for the internet to me. How wrong was I! I tried searching for 20 minutes and only found pages that referred to funerary bread, none gave the recipe. Frustratingly, some even mentioned that they'd found the recipe courtesy of the internet. I used some of your search tips, and, using Google, narrowed the search right down to:

"egyptian funerary bread recipe" -greek -"the perfumed mummy" -"karen taylor project"

In that query, "the perfumed mummy" and "karen taylor project" refer to pages that mention they'd found the recipe courtesy of the internet but which didn't have it, so I wanted to remove them.

I got one hit, which didn't help.

A. OK, I'll bite (pun intended). I went to Google and searched for:

recipe for egyptian funerary bread.

That "Karen Taylor" project page came up, looking so appealing at number three with this description:

"In the oral presentations we were presented with Egyptian Funerary Bread to taste (recipe courtesy of the Internet)"

Now here's a key search tip. That page mentions the recipe but doesn't list it. We could keep searching, but let's instead try something different. Can we find this Karen Taylor and just ask her?

The Karen Taylor page doesn't list a contact address for her, but we could try asking the Department of Education for Western Australia, where she's apparently a teacher and which publishes the page.

Can't wait? OK, let's keep hunting for Karen Taylor using Google:

"Karen Taylor" Mirrabooka Primary School

That query didn't work, so perhaps let's just find her school:

"Mirrabooka Primary School"

Turns out, Google found plenty of pages with links to the school web site, but the site no longer seems to exist (and no, the Google page cache feature won't resurrect it). No luck with AllTheWeb.com, either. But it was fairly easy to find a phone number for the school. Either a phone call to the school, or contacting the department of education, might have brought an answer about reaching Karen and getting that recipe.

The key point here is to remember that search engines may be more useful to take you part of the way to an answer, where "old fashion" attempts like asking people the right question who know can take over. But hey, let's not give up on the web yet. Let's use a little search engine math, in the right places:

recipe for egyptian "funerary bread"

My thought here was that perhaps by going for "egyptian funerary bread recipe" as an exact phrase in your original query, you were getting too specific. The page you want might not have all those words in that exact order. So just phrasing "funerary bread" portion might be enough to get pages with that exact phrase and the other key words elsewhere on it.

That query brought great looking results at Google, where number three promised:

"Mission accomplished! i need the recipe for egyptian funerary."

Whoops. Would you believe this is a complete spam page that redirects to a an Amazon affiliate selling electronics products. In fact, that query brings up tons of spam, and narrowing to "egyptian funerary bread" as an exact phrase didn't help, either.

I then tried over on AllTheWeb.com, both ways, but nothing good seemed to come up. After striking out on two different search engines, it's time to bring in a meta search engine and query a bunch of them at once. Going to Vivisimo.com, I entered:

"egyptian funerary bread"

Two hits came back, that Karen Taylor project first and the second, a page with the actual recipe, as found on....wait for it....AOL Search, fed by Inktomi's results.

This just goes to show that Google really doesn't always find everything right off, or more importantly, that different search engines have different "opinions" of the web. The same query used at a different search engine may come through for you, so consider shopping it around.

Time to find -- about 15 minutes. Actually, it was a bit faster, but I kept stopping to make notes of what I was doing.

Hope the bread tastes good!

Postscript: May 31, 2002

After this article was written, librarian Larry Gaynor of the Fort Worth Public Library wrote in to explain that while an "answer" was found, it wasn't necessarily accurate.

Gaynor decided to conduct some further research, this time using the Google Groups service. Google Groups lets you search across discussions on the internet's usenet service, as opposed to searching for web pages.

Gaynor searched at Google Groups for:

"ancient egypt" bread recipe

The first post he found was from Egyptologist Nicole Hansen, stating that "absolutely no food recipes from ancient Egypt survive." Hansen also got in touch with me after Gaynor notified her of this article, to stress that the recipe couldn't be correct.

"Your article about Egyptian funerary bread just proves one other point about the internet, that you cannot believe everything you read on the internet. I am an Egyptologist specializing in ancient Egyptian food, and I can tell you with 100 percent certainty that no recipes for bread survive from ancient Egypt. Therefore, the recipe you found was not authentic," Hansen wrote.

So, while a search engine might get you to an answer, it remains up to you to determine whether that "answer" is accurate. However, this is true of any information you receive, not just that found on the internet. The same post from Hansen notes that the venerable British Museum published a book of ancient Egyptian recipes of doubtful authenticity.

Certainly, the internet makes it easier for inaccurate information to be published than in the offline world, so greater skepticism is important. The "Get Smart About Web Site I.Q" article below provides some tips on verifying internet information, which may be helpful.

Of course, in the case of the recipe originally found, a further look at the site shows that references were provided. This recipe presumably came from one of the books shown on the reference list and might lead you to assume that it must be correct. However, as noted, even books can get it wrong.

This postscript also stresses another important search tip: not everything you want is found on web pages. Gaynor's query on the Google Groups service tapped into a database of discussion information, which is an excellent place to look both for original answers or to help verify answers you may have found on a web page.

Search Engine Math
http://searchenginewatch.com/facts/math.html

Tips about how to use search engine math to refine your results.

Search Assistance Features
http://searchenginewatch.com/facts/assistance.html#spidered

Explains the Google page cache feature.

Search Engine Links
http://searchenginewatch.com/links/

The "Major Search Engines" page lists a variety of large search engines where you can search the web -- please note that some of the annotations need to be updated, and I hope to have that done by late May. But the links work. "Metacrawlers" gives a link of major meta search services.

Egyptian Funerary Bread Recipe
http://www.unisa.edu.au/ute/StudentWeb/Sam Dalgety/bread.htm

Egyptian Funerary Bread Recipe: Reference List http://www.unisa.edu.au/ute/StudentWeb/Sam Dalgety/references.htm

Google Groups
http://groups.google.com

Re: Egyptian recipe needed
http://groups.google.com/groups?selm=E[email protected]

Hansen's usenet post about ancient Egyptian recipes.

Bread Ancient Style
http://www.fas.harvard.edu/˜aera/Giza_Pages/Aeragram_Pages/AERAG1_1/bakeries.htm

Describes how National Geographic tried to rediscover how ancient Egyptian bread was baked.

The Diet of the Ancient Egyptians
http://www.touregypt.net/featurestories/diet.htm

No recipes but an overview of what ancient Egyptians ate.

Get Smart About Web Site I.Q.
http://searchenginewatch.com/searchday/02/sd0404-webiq.html

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NOTE: Article links often change. In case of a bad link, use the publication's search facility, which most have, and search for the headline.

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