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Google’s Dan Russell on Search

According to Google researcher (who also calls himself a cyber-tribal-techno-cognitive-anthropologist) Dan Russell, most people learn how to search from friends (and a little bit from classes) and they remember stories. He tells stories about what he’s learned from searching in his book The Joy of Search (MIT Press) and his wonderful blog (

People have mental models about libraries and what the library does. Is Google omniscient?

How people search, identify, locate, evaluate sources.

How does Google work? Is it: Completely keyword search; Fulltext indexing; Partial text indexing; Link anchors; Blended results; What’s covered in the index?

When he asks people to draw a picture about how search works: 33% have the word “magic” in them.

Without a mental model, you can’t make predictions. What breaks your mental model of Google? It has a staggering amount of books, video, images, and documents.

But there are still difficult questions

What was the population of Japan in 1490?

How much apartment housing should San Francisco have?

It’s good to know what you can and cannot search. You can search on symbols, images

He can search on an image of what looks like an insect bite and surrounding rash on his son’s arm, but it’s not likely to tell him much

There’s an app that will identify mushrooms but how reliable is it? (only survivors get to rate the app)

Aerial photo of building in Palo Alto from years ago– Use time slider on Google Earth


What can you search for? What’s possible? Where to look? Google StreetView, Earth, others

Go through various iterations to get to answer.


He then told two search stories based on his experience, one about a phone number in Warsaw and the other a historical account of Perry on Delos. These are taken from his book and well worth reading.

It’s important to remember that not everything is on the web

Use CTR-F to find on a page. Surprising to me, Dan claims that 90% of people don’t know this trick.

Know the conventions of the culture:

Spoof sites (part of genre of internet culture is creating spoof sites

You tube is where people go to learn – do we know how to point people to high quality videos


The way we’re asking questions is changing

It’s always been a skill

Now it’s a critical skill

An interesting trick to find information about a website without going to the website is to search sitename –site:sitename

Site assessment is a basic skill

EPA Facts ( versus Environmental Policy Alliance

We need to design info systems to support informacy and continual learning

We need to teach our students about how to use all of our information systems

Augment skills of ordinary people

Search is not intuitive.

The latest post on SearchResearch is all about how  and how often searchers fact-checked. Well worth the read!



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