Learning to search again

Admit it; you were around pre-Google. I know I was. My first search engine was Ms. Little at our high school library and she knew everything. I’d love to see today how she would work in a digital world. I’m sure she would have mastered it.

But, fast forward to the beginnings of being connected to the internet. Believe it or not, we were still pre-Google.

The search engines that we preferred were Yahoo! and Lycos. My Computers in Education School Contacts were largely teacher-librarians and they helped form that opinion. At the time, both of these search engines were really libraries that you could flip through much like card catalogues. It served us well and we mostly were able to find what we were looking for, provided it was catalogued.

On the board’s website, I had a home page for the browsers where we had links to the resources that tied directly to the curriculum. People would submit links and I’d throw them up there. The logic was that, if it was good for one, it could be good for all.

The mantra was “Don’t waste time looking for content when you can use something that is already reviewed and made available to all.

When Google came along, it was forbidden to use. Why waste time searching for a resource that someone has already found and catalogued.

I still remember one of the teacher-librarians providing a research article that indicated that most students found what they were looking for in the first ten results from a Google Search. If this was true, there were sure better than me or they were able to compromise.

Of course, we know how things ended. The kids won!

Nowadays, the concept of a catalogue for public search isn’t really used although there are some incredible ones for particular purposes.

Instead, we turned to learning how to get better results from Google. That was right up this Computer Science person’s alley as I was comfortable with AND, OR, NOT, XOR, exact versus fuzzy matches, etc.

Now, it appears that everything will change again.

Photo by Jonathan Kemper on Unsplash

This morning as I turned to my Flipboard resources, both the Microsoft and Google categories were filled with the results of Microsoft’s announcements from yesterday. Don’t let the irony that the link there goes to a Yahoo! news site.

I have no doubt that the skillset that we used for searching logic but artificial intelligence promises much more with concept of inclusiveness to all, dialogue with a search engine, and much more. Oh, and the stories indicate that Google’s AI will be better than Microsoft’s AI. How far can you spit?

So, we’re in it all over again. As end users, we can’t afford to stand still. Whether you’re ready to jump in and maybe get a preview of Microsoft’s search (and marketing … read the fine print) or you’re willing to wait until it becomes to the masses, make no mistake.

It’s coming and the most powerful of users will take advantage. What’s exciting this time around is that if you’re not an expert in logic and logical operators, the promise is that you can talk your way to better search results.

I do find it interesting that privacy search engines like DuckDuckGo are not making any big announcements at this time. Can they survive in this new search world?


The good old days

Remember the first steps on Social Media? For me, it was back in 2007. Social Media and the Internet were still young and most of the content was actually good. Fast forward to today where you pretty much have to fact-check everything that you read. It’s our reality.

Now, one of the lessons of the internet is that nothing ever goes away. You can always find it. It’s just that often it takes some fancy work to actually find it again.

The problem is that there is so much stuff available and search engines typically make the assumption that what you want is new and most recent. It’s not a bad assumption but isn’t always true.

Some times you want to go back….way back. That might call for a song like the one from the Jimmy Castor Bunch but we’re not going back that far!

It happens to me all the time. I remember something from years ago so I search and then just go back page by page until I hopefully find it. Oldest Search solves that problem for me.

It’s designed to go way back and start there and work forward.

The results come from Google which knows and stores most things. Yes, there are ways to get Google to go way back but it does take a little work. Oldest Search just assumes that you want the oldest results.

I thought this implementation was kind of neat and it certainly stole some time from my current work to take a look at things from the past.


Close only counts in horseshoes (and hand grenades).

The Free dictionary

I think that the first time I’d heard that idiom was in a mathematics classroom at secondary school. I think I remember the teacher I could attribute it to but I’m not sure. If it was on the internet, I could probably search for it and find it.

Even finding this quote didn’t mean that I had to know everything. Like so many people, I suspect, I can start with a subset of what I really want to know and let my search engine take it and run with it to give me answers (and alternatives).

I was stopped in my tracks this morning when I read this story from Reuters

China requires Microsoft’s Bing to suspend auto-suggest feature

There were two things.

  • Bing is the only major search engine available in China? An interesting summary of what’s available in China is here
  • can you imagine a search engine limited by the ability to not auto-suggest?

I’ll admit that I use auto-suggest all the time. Most commonly, it’s to determine the correct spelling of a word that I was to use or the ability to find a word that I think I know. On a serious bent, auto-suggest can take me in slightly or completely different directions based on a theme.

I think that we could all come up with reasons why auto-suggest might be considered dangerous at this time. While you might go looking for truthful news, you might just find something completely different.

There’s also privacy / bias concerns if you’re actually logged in to the search engine. Artificial intelligence can be used to give you “better” results based on what the search engine knows about you. I’ve always been a fan of a search engine that doesn’t use these techniques so that I think I get as unbiased results as I can.

I suspect that all of us take these features and access to all the information that is out there and just a search result or auto-suggest search away. It’s become just the way that we do business. Imagine waking up and finding that it’s all gone away.

Another search option

Like most everyone, when I started using the internet, I’d go to Altavista or Excite to do my web searching. As browsers became sophisticated, they had search engines built in them and you could search right from the address bar.

Now, as we know, we can change that default search engine. I’ve bounced around from DuckDuckGo, Google, and StartPage. Other than the bank of resources that they index, they all basically presents results the same way – via a top 10 or so page and then the option to click for more results.

It can be frustrating to search at times because you’d like to think that the first result is the best, followed by the second best, third best, etc. We know now that results don’t always come that way (although a lot of students still think they do).

We know that you can get better results with better search terms, learning the tools of the search engine or to look for the Advanced section and do your searching there.

Carrot Search is different. It’s called a clustering search and is quite interesting to use. It’s not fast with immediate results like others because it does more than others.

Suppose I wanted to search for “COVID”, I’d get predictable results from a regular search engine. But, searching in Carrot returns a much more comprehensive set of results.

There is even a tab that will let you switch to a PubMed set of results pulled from medical articles.

Looking at the results, you’ll quickly notice that they’re clustered by similarity and the cluster itself is a hot link that displays results in the right panel of the screen. More details are available in the documentation.

Carrot is available on GitHub and a second web implementation can be found here.

I poked around with both and did not see any advertising or distractions but sure did get a whole bunch of clustered results. I’m not sure that this will be my default search engine but I’ve bookmarked it for those times when I want to go deeper or perhaps I don’t know the entire context of what I’m searching for and want some help.

It’s been a while since I saw something new and different in search and this most certainly was.

An intriguing search engine

Since I first got connected years ago, I’ve been on the look for the perfect search engine that reads my mind and gets me the answer that’s most appropriate for me. As I’m sure you can empathize with me, that’s a tough order.

I read once that students can find what they’re looking for within the first ten results from a Google search. That has always stuck with me since it tells me that they’re a whole better at searching than I am. Or, they compromise and move on.

Even that scenario gets more difficult because, if you don’t have an ad blocker installed, the actual results appear after the advertising. Or, maybe the advertising gives the result you want?

Search engines are everywhere – of course, we know of Google, Yahoo!, DuckDuckGo, Bing, and the list goes on. Heck, even dougpete.wordpress.com has a search engine at the top right corner of this page. Why would I go anywhere else since I’ve written and done my research for years now on so many topics! “off the record” gives me license to do what I want on any given day. Let’s not go down that rabbit hole.

When you peel back the fancy wrapping, search engines mostly look all the same. The biggest fight seems to be providing advertising results that take you away from what you’re actually looking for.

So, when I had a chance to poke around with the YOU search engine, I was pleasantly pleased.

You can read a great deal about how it doesn’t sell your data and its take on your privacy here. I do read these terms and I appreciate that lawyers get paid well for their wordsmithing. The reality is that your request comes from an IP address and has to be returned to where it came from so you aren’t wandering around completely anonymously. I think we all know that and have become accustomed to the reality of being online.

What separates YOU from all the rest are the results and how they are displayed. Unlike other search engines which provide a list where some algorithm has determined what is most important, results are displayed both horizontally and vertically. I gave it my acid test and searched for “dougpete”. After all, I should know what the most relevant result should be. (I think, anyway)

The results came from the internet, to be sure, but specifically they came from Twitter, Instagram, Linkedin, … as you can see below…

What really hits you between the eyes with the horizontal display results from a source is that YOU recognizes that there might be more than one relevant result from a source. As we know, traditional search engines typically provide one and then move onto the next. So, right off the bat, you’re digging a little deeper. I can’t help but think that this will prove to be very useful for people doing research on a topic.

If you scroll to the bottom of the screen, you can add additional web applications to be searched. YOU also lets you create an account for customization. Your first kick at it doesn’t require this.

With a nod to the traditional approach, you can refine that search by type…

After playing around with it for a while, I really started to appreciate the design and layout that went into it. It really effectively uses all of the screen real estate nicely. It doesn’t seem as fast as a traditional search engine but when you see the results, you can appreciate that more work with the results has gone into its design.

Some of the settings should be familiar – private and safe searching – and the ability to make YOU your default search engine.

I’m intrigued that you can join their Slack channel to discuss items related to YOU. To make it the default search engine, you need to install its own extension – your regular browser probably doesn’t know about YOU just yet.

I think you owe it to yourself to kick the tires on this one and see if it has a place in your browser or your searching routine.