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How to... use search engines effectively

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By Margaret Adolphus

The perfect search engine does not exist. Not only is information increasing exponentially, but search behaviour is becoming ever more demanding. So, at the point when theoretical perfection is achieved, another layer of information becomes available, and people find new ways to search.

This is good news for the developers of search engines, especially for the behemoth Google, which controls 78 per cent of the market.

But for the rest of us, it's as difficult to keep abreast of developments in search engines as it is those in Web 2.0 applications. This article is an attempt to summarize some recent trends.

What do the experts think?

Given their importance in the market, it seems appropriate to start with Google. Speaking in December 2009, Matt Cutts predicted a number of trends (Skipease, 2009):

  • Segmentation of search – Google would try and categorize information more, for example Google Book Search, (US) government search, blog search, etc.
  • Semantic Web – Google search engine is becoming more sophisticated, taking account of synonyms, page structure and user intent.
  • Searching the cloud – as people become more confident to store information on "cloud" hard drives, there will be a need to search these.
  • Real-time – searching what people are writing at the moment to catch the latest buzz and get really up to the minute information.
  • Mobile search – as we use mobiles for information, we will need search tools to search them, so mobile websites will need to be formatted for searchability.

Writing from the perspective of the third quarter of 2010, these trends appear spot on, however, they fail to mention a key concern picked up by two information professional commentators: the need to organize information.

Information consultant Ellyssa Kroski wants search engines to reduce information overload:

"To access the vast content stores of the read/write Web, these search tools make use of structured and linked data, real-time search, personalization, and more focused filtering techniques. If you're a fan of buzzwords, you might say we've entered Web 3.0, a new era that is motivated by the need to more effectively organize, filter, and access information online" (Kroski, 2009).

And Phil Bradley, listening to someone else's vision of a perfect search engine, muses that his vision is of a tool that would filter, sieve and collate information rather than just present it (Bradley, 2010).

So, what are the main trends, and do they make it easier to find information?