From the Boidem - 
an occasional column on computers and information technologies in everyday life

June 30, 2008*: Search Rules!

There's little point in writing a Boidem column devoted to the idea that search has become an overriding paradigm for accessing information - on the internet or on our computers - I already wrote just such a column five years ago. In that column I confessed that, rather than rifle through my plentiful bookmarks in order to find a particular page, it had become easier simply to run a Google search on a term I was sure would show up on the page I wanted to find. Since then, search has continued to establish itself as the most accessible and available method of finding almost anything. A decade ago, online catalogs offered a workable basis for locating sites via a logical organizational structure. But the efficacy of the catalog collapsed under the deluge of millions upon millions of sites. In much the same manner, the bookmark - originally a very useful reminder on our own computer of how we might get back to something housed somewhere within the vast reaches of the web - became ineffective, and even impracticable, when we created more bookmarks than we were capable of reviewing in a cursory glance. Simply put, bookmarks don't scale.

But, as I've noted before (almost a year and a half ago seems to have been the last time), the real worth of bookmarks, their raison-d'etre, shouldn't be sought in our need, however real, to readily return to a page we've previously visited. What bookmarking does is cause us to stop and think, to reflect. Within the continual waves of information that pound the beachhead of our thinking, we desperately need a means of distinguishing between what's simply interesting, and what deserves special attention. When we stop to bookmark a page - whether because we want to return to it at some later date, or because we want to show it to someone else (or for some other reason) - the activity of momentarily halting our web-surfing in order to take special note of a page is the physical representation of an important mental process. The bookmark itself isn't what's important, but instead the act of taking note of something that should stand out. Lately, rather than bookmarking, I've been sending links to pages I want to reflect upon to myself via gmail, a method that, for me, has numerous advantages, though any method that causes us to stop and think seems to me to be legitimate.

Though I still bookmark, most of my bookmarks are to sites that have lengthy, or non-obvious URLs. I'm still capable of remembering URLs that are little more than the name of the site, meaning that I can quickly type the desired name into the address bar, add on ".com" or something similar,and get to the right site without difficulty. For sites with these obvious, or logical, URLs, this is clearly simpler than looking for the right name in my bookmarks. And though it may seem counter-intuitive, conducting a new search for a site we want, rather trying to find a saved page in our bookmarks is also almost always faster. And that being the case, I shouldn't be surprised to learn that more and more people are turning to search as their primary method of getting to pages the URLs of which they may actually know, or can at least readily guess.

A blogpost titled The URL is Dead, Long Live Search from about a month ago on the blog ReadWriteWeb blog offered a striking example of this:

Last week I was watching TV and saw something that really caught my eye. It was a commercial for Special K, the breakfast cereal from Kellogg, and rather than end with a plug for the product's web site -- -- it advised people to search Yahoo! for "Special K" instead.
In other words, this particular television advertisement was suggesting that it was easier to run a search for something eight letters long, rather than to type those eight letters, followed by ".com" into the address bar. It was hard not to scratch my head at this - a good case could definitely be made to claim that conducting a search for a site was today simpler, and often more effective, than retrieving it from our bookmarks. But had search truly become so ubiquitous that it was now the preferred method of connecting to a web site, even if typing the name of the site in our browser's address bar would achieve the same result?

It seems that the opening of this ReadWriteWeb post was only the tip of an iceberg. The post links to a Search Engine Journal post from the beginning of May that claims:
If statistics on popular searches are anything to go by, it looks like many people aren't bothering with that inconvenient "www" and ".com" and are just going straight through Google.
The post asks whether the address bar is now dead, and answers that it's beginning to appear that way:
But with Google more often that not incorporated into browser toolbars and searching directly for brand websites pretty much as quick and easy through the search engine as through typing the address direct, it may be becoming increasingly redundant for many users.
All this suggests that if, three years ago, I wrote about "the tyranny of search", in the three years since that column, we've been engulfed in a trend that threatens to change that "tyranny" into a "totality", though it may also be a trend that's aided and abetted by a sort of basic internet-illiteracy. Even if it's true that people consciously choose to run a search rather than access the address bar, it's a fair guess that most users simply can't tell the difference between the two.

Actually, I've been somewhat aware of this trend for at least a couple of years, but hadn't realized how prevalent it really was. More than a handful of times, at various in-service sessions, I've overheard teachers tell their compatriots that the easiest way to get to their schools' web sites is to run a search on the name of the school in Google. These teachers will usually add something like - "our site is the third result". Though this often caused me to scratch my head and made me feel that there was something amiss, I still had to admit that there was more than a bit of logic in this system. But even if I was unable to pinpoint what bothered me about it, it simply seemed wrong. It seemed to go against a basic precept of the internet - each distinct web page has an address, so logically the way to get to a particular page would be via that address. Certainly it's legitimate to run a search for information, or to try to locate a page that we aren't sure how to find, but the very fact that we have to search for it seems to be an acknowledgement of the fact that we don't know where it is. If we do know, then why are we searching? And the fact of searching for a page would seem to suggest that there's something highly intangible about it, that it's not as "really there" as we might like.

Search isn't merely a means of locating something - be it something that we've filed away, or something we've perhaps misplaced, or something that we hope exists but aren't really sure. Search is an overriding metaphor for our relationship with the information landscape in which we live. As search fulfills more and more of our information needs, it dominates that relationship, and colors the way we view that landscape. When maps were used to describe people's relationship to their surroundings, the very existence of a two-dimensional map suggested that even if we felt lost within an unknown world, that world was clearly knowable. Our maps sought to establish dominion over the unknown. Search, on the other hand, is a capitulation to the unknown. Perhaps it's true that ultimately we have no idea where we are, but the supremacy of search suggests that we no longer even feel the urge, the need, to know. And even if that accurately describes our relationship with the world, it still somehow leaves us with a rather empty feeling.

That's it for this edition. Reactions and suggestions can be sent to:

Jay Hurvitz

back to the Boidem Contents Page

Return to Luftmentsh