Searching BG, Before Google, And The Need To Search Better

Just when you think stupid articles that assume we couldn’t search BG —
Before Google — have come to an end, the New York Times gives us another one.
Here are examples of this mistaken assumption from


. Now for 2006,
Searching for
, an opinion piece by Edward Tenner, explains how Google and its
rivals today have made searching too easy and thus people aren’t leaning about
proper searching strategies. I agree with Tenner in the end, but he takes a
convoluted and mistaken argument to get there.

Search today is too easy? Tenner writes:

But convenience may be part of the problem. In the Web’s early days, the most
serious search engine was AltaVista. To use it well, a searcher had to learn how
to construct a search statement, like, say, “Engelbert Humperdinck and not Las
Vegas” for the opera composer rather than the contemporary singer.

No, they didn’t have to do this. Plenty of people would and did type
in simple queries into AltaVista and get perfectly decent results without
struggle. They didn’t have to know Boolean commands to do so.

Yes, search
engine math commands
could help then, just as they still can today. That
would especially be true if a search back then on AltaVista brought back only
results about popular singer Engelbert Humperdinck rather than Engelbert
Humperdinck, the Austrian composer of Hansel & Gretel. But then again,
Tenner hasn’t said that was the actual case. He just gives it as an example
without proof. For all we know, AltaVista did back then just
what the search engines today do, give you a mixture of results on both people.

Tenner credits the improvement in search simplicity as being due to link analysis.

It took practice to produce usable results. Now, thanks to brilliant
programming, a simple query usually produces a first page that’s at least
adequate ? “satisficing,” as the economist Herbert Simon called it.

The efficiency of today’s search engines arises from their ability to analyze
links among Web sites. Google led in ranking sites by how often they are linked
to other highly ranked sites.

That’s not exactly correct. Link analysis improved the quality of results but
not necessarily the need to occasionally use search commands or restructure your
search terms, to get results on what you’re looking for.

Link analysis was the second generation jump that helped solve the real
problem that AltaVista and contemporaries had, that they were getting
overwhelmed by both spam and the sheer amount of content on the web. What was
the best stuff? Link analysis helped make sense of an increasingly noisy

So back to Tenner, supposedly because of link analysis, we can do the
Engelbert Humperdinck search and get results on both people without falling back to doing
something like this:

engelbert humperdinck +opera -“las vegas”

But if that’s true, then argument on searching being too easy falls apart when he says this:

Search engines have the opposite problem: dispersion rather than
concentration of interest. Despite constant tweaking, their formulas display
irrelevant or mediocre sites on a par with truly expert ones. Despite constant
tweaking, their formulas display irrelevant or mediocre sites on a par with
truly expert ones.

Curious about the academic field of world history? A neophyte would find
little help entering “world history” in Google. When I tried, the only article
on the world history movement, from the open-source Wikipedia project, didn’t
appear until the fifth screen and was brief and eccentric, erroneously dating
the field from the 1980’s….Only on the seventh screen did I find the World
History Network site, financed by the National Endowment for the Humanities,
and it is not yet a good portal for beginners.

So let me get this straight. Earlier, you complained that search engines gave
you concentrated results on just one thing — Engelbert Humperdinck the popular
singer. Now you complain that they are failing to give you concentrated results
on just one thing — the “academic field of world history.”

Gee — that’s kind of broad. Anything in particular about the academic field
— issues on how it should be taught, biases, publications?

Apparently, a search for [world history] should bring up information about
the “world history movement.” I’d argue that focusing all the results just on this
single subject would be a bad, bad idea. Plenty of people looking for
information on world history don’t want to know about that movement but instead
maybe timelines, events and other information that the first page of Google
results do well.

Instead, if you really want to know specifically about the world history
movement, you need some query refinement tools (which Google
lacks) or
you need to structure your query better, ironically similar to the way Tenner
said you no longer need to do things.

For example, if you’re after information about the world history movement,
then it’s helpful to actually use all the words that describe what you want. IE:

world history movement

That gives radically different results that a search for just world history
on Google. But still, none of them seem to bring up pages specifically about
this movement Tenner is interested in (and neither do the first page of results
at places like Yahoo, MSN or Ask).

So instead, let’s look for that exact phrase. By default, most search engines
will tend to give preference to pages that have the words in the order you
specify, but that’s not guaranteed or foolproof. Surrounding your search terms
with a quote marks ensures that you get pages that have pages with words in that
exact order. So we enter:

“world history movement”

That immediately brings back only 103 results — an incredibly tiny amount
and suggesting that the world history movement isn’t as widespread and
commonplace on the web as Tenner thinks. That brings me back to one of my other
top search tips. It’s not always on the web. Want to know about the world
history movement? One good thing might be to talk with a world history teacher!

Annoyingly at Google, one possibly good

on the topic isn’t accessible, because it come from Google Scholar,
where this academic paper is allowed to be
That makes it searchable but not actually viewable except to those with paid
subscriptions. Another potentially good

goes to a 404 not found error. Other pages have references to this
movement but no real explanation of it.

How about the others? The same quoted search on Yahoo gives me 55 matches,
but nothing really great in the first two pages of results. MSN had 43 results
and Ask had 34. Ask got me to a page describing a
about the movement — and going back, I see that was also listed at Google and
Yahoo in their first pages of results.

Hmm — a book? Then perhaps it’s not that I need to change my query but
rather tap into a more specialized database like Google Book Search. So I try
history movement”
there and get a short mention of it in this

and a bit also in this


I’m still not satisfied. How about academic search engines, such as recently
in SearchDay? After all, Tenner said this was an academic term. Part of
searching better is understanding when to leave behind the Swiss Army Knife of
web search for a more specialized resource. Let’s try Google Scholar for

“world history movement”

Oh, disappointment. There’s that cloaked page again that I can’t read without
a paid subscription. There’s another dead page. There’s another restricted page,
and another and another. Frankly, your layperson interested in this material is
better off going to a reference librarian. And a reference librarian is better
off probably tapping into non-Google tools to search this material.

OK, one last stab. I tried OAIster
for world history movement and came away with nothing.

In the end, perhaps there is that perfect page about the world history
movement out on the web. Then again, maybe the blame isn’t on link analysis or a
lack of searching skills in this particular case. Instead, this might be a great
example of how web search doesn’t find everything because not everything is on
the web.

That brings me to finally agreeing with Tenner, with his closing point that
student (and people in general) need to understand how to better structure
queries, how to make use of different tools and even how to stop using search
engines and fall back on other resources (such as professional librarians).
Search engines are great in many ways, but they aren’t, nor ever have been,
perfect tools either BG or AG.

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