Why Search Matters — How to Help People Find Their Way in the Community

n the mid-nineties I was traveling in Brazil and, one day, I was invited to a birthday party by a friend of a friend of a friend. Not having anything better to do that evening, I borrowed a car and set out for the other side of Campinas. I had been told that the house I was looking for was on the city’s outskirts, but no one mentioned that it was also beyond the boundary where there were any street signs. 

All I had was a street address in a neighborhood that was on the other side of the little river (those were the exact words on my directions — “On the other side of the little river”). As I looked out over the river, I could make out several neighborhoods amidst what had to have been more than 100,000 people. 
Always the intrepid traveler, however, I crossed over and began asking people about the neighborhood and street. The amazing thing is that, in spite of the fact that there was not one street sign in this whole big and winding place, it took me only four questions to arrive at my destination. It would have taken only three questions if I hadn’t misunderstood one man’s Portuguese.

As I have thought about this over the years, it has become clearer to me and less amazing. The key to being able to find this place that had no street signs was that I had a general location and was able to rely on the fact that everyone else inside the general area knew exactly where they were. I could also count on the fact that their knowledge extended to just slightly beyond their own location.

Much in the same way that we are all separated from each other by no more than six degrees (or from Kevin Bacon), we are separated from our desired destinations by no more than a few (perhaps six?) questions or contacts.

This reflection is intended to be an illustration of some of the issues related to searching on the Web and to point out why search engines are getting so much play in the press these days.

There are a couple of forces at work. First, the big companies realize that searching is the quickest way to add users to their services and to sell advertising on the Web. As a result, big search engines/portals like MSN, Yahoo, and Google are battling it out for searching supremacy. On the corporate search front, company’s like InQuira, Verity, and Overture are trying to carve out a niche. Each promises to provide a search technology that will get you where you want to go faster and with greater accuracy than anyone else.

From a bottom-up perspective, community is driving the push for better search technology. Those of us using the various search engines are just trying to get across the river to a little place where something neat is happening and we want a little help. The search engines are the compilation of the knowledge of all those people who live on the other side and know where they are.

So, I need information and searching makes it possible for me to get that information. But there is more — much more. The real joy of searching is not just found in getting to my intended destination, it is in the conversations and links to the people and information sources that make the discovery process possible.

This is one of the reasons blogging and aggregated news feeds are so popular. These technologies provide us a much more enjoyable search model.. We can find our primary information sources, but we can also find important pathways, commentary, and relationships along the way.

For educators, searching has the obvious importance as a research tool. But it is equally, if not more important as a community tool. Search engines, top-down or bottom-up, are a method for connecting us to others faster, for expanding our boundaries. As such, there are some tips to keep in mind, both as we build out own information sources and as we connect to those belonging to others.

  • Identify your material carefully and accurately — The neighborhood (your school, institution, or ISP) can worry about the “street signs,” but you can make sure that your “house” is uniquely identified and beautiful. Tag your HTML, make meaningful titles — do anything you can to make your knowledge useful to other users. Identifying yourself also means that you let people know what your “house” has to offer and what information is unique to you. It will save others a lot of time and it will connect you more tightly to the community.; 
  • Be a good neighbor with handy information — One way to do this is to act, “virtually,” as one of those people along the side of the road that one might stop to ask for information. Anticipate those requests and make the information readily available (especially if people are always stopping to ask the same questions). Notice that the Link Library in Xplana tries to serve this function. This is a collection of “answers sites” that we’ve used over the years to help people. In the same way, we try to provide helpful links within our articles and white papers. 
  • Take the time to talk to others — Search engines are automated logic schemas and bots. Communities are full of conversation. Both have their merits. As part of the community, invite people to talk to you. We have comment pages and discussion built into our engine. On every blog you’ll find an e-mail link (that’s an invitation to talk). Make certain people can find you and ask you a question. In this way you become part of the “personal global search engine community.” 
  • Do what you can to help traffic flow — It’s one thing to et people to their appointed destination. It is altogether something different to get them there efficiently. I used to write culture guides and activities for foreign language textbooks. For each of these guides I would create activities based on Web links. You cannot imagine how hard it can be to find good links on even the most basic subjects. The solutions, inevitably, came from good citizens who, along the way, had experienced the same difficulty and left a “trail” for me to follow. You can save people an inordinate amount of time by just telling them the shortest route to a place, or to turn “left” instead of “right.”

Searching is, perhaps, the most educational aspect related to Internet technology. It is also a great community builder. The key for all of us to remember that we are both “travelers” of the systems as well s information sources for others. Playing both roles with empathy makes the system perfect for everyone.