Digital Minefield

Why The Machines Are Winning

The Elements of Search, Part Five


In Part Two of this series, I described an alternative (the iterative method) to commonly used search techniques. This option is simple to understand and easy to use. Many decades ago, computer searching was neither. It required learning the complex methodology (e.g., Boolean Algebraic expressions) necessary to create rigorous and yet flexible search parameters. Today, this is a lost science.

The builders of today’s search engines have chosen (for reasons given in the last installment) to implement their own, not very scientific search methods. And they keep changing these methods, sometimes for efficiency, sometimes for avarice. The end result is that today searching with a computer is mostly a black art.

Since the science of search is lost in the computer’s dim past, most people have no idea why it was necessary. Certainly, there aren’t many obvious complications searching for a single word. But once a second word is added, the complications quickly erupt into dizzying possibilities.

The first complication is whether you want to find both terms or just one OR the other. Or perhaps you want pages with the first term but NOT the second. On the surface, those might seem to cover all the possibilities. Far from it. You might want text with the two terms in the same sentence. Or perhaps in the same paragraph. You might want a search specifying these two terms appear so many words apart, e.g., within a string 20 words—or less. Or both terms together, but in any order, with no intervening words or punctuation. And so on.

All this for just two terms! I use “terms” instead of “words,” because a term can be a word, a phrase, or a combination of terms. To be able to exactly specify such complex searches requires a rigorously defined search language (far more than just ANDs, ORs, and NOTs). It also requires the user know this language, and that the search program assist in its use.

Without a scientific approach (or the simpler iterative method), we are left to the whims of the search engine builders. Their vagaries have nearly infinite variety. Different search engines return different results. As does the same search engine at different times—sometimes, just a few minutes later. Black art, indeed.

Next week: what’s missing from search engines

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