Jon Udell writes about trying to define “the learnable component of effective search.”

Last night an old friend who runs a small software company confessed a secret. When he and his staff answer technical questions for clients, they are often “only” searching Google. At one point, he even asked a client: “Do you really want us to search Google for you at $100/hour?” Yes, in fact they did. My friend thought that was crazy. I suggested that it’s not as crazy as it sounds. Effective search depends on reservoirs of tacit knowledge and unconscious skill. Some people possess much deeper reservoirs, and/or can tap into them more effectively, than others. That makes them valuable.

As a person who gets asked to search Google each day for other people, I can sympathize. Udell makes a good point about search strategy potentially being a teachable skill, but in my personal experience knowledge of the subject matter and how people write about it are the primary difference between me searching and another person searching on the same subject.

Technical information about program errors, for instance, tends to be organized in certain ways. If you want to find the solution, the best place to start is the error message/code itself, not a description of the problem. I suspect a lot of the similarity in structure of technical information about software stems from the content producers’ experience with company knowledge bases. However, even without that, the commonality of the experience of seeing the error message/code would result in a lot of people using that same wording when writing about the problem: “If you see this, do this.”

I seldom get asked to search for anything having to do with marketing, or photos for illustration, or financial information, and if I were asked to, I suspect I wouldn’t be as good at finding the materials as others I work with. They not only have more experience searching for the information, but they also know how that information is organized and the terminology used to describe it.

I also wonder about the difference between searching for one thing you know should exist, and searching for information that could be found in many places. Udell’s first example is about searching for a specific bit of information that he knows should exist, but doesn’t know how it is filed. His second example appears to be searching for information that might exist out there in many different forms and formats. Perhaps it should be the same thing, but I think I usually use different strategies. Perhaps I should start writing them down myself.

Link courtesy of Library Stuff.