Today I had a bit of a laugh at Phil Bradley’s post on what happens when you ask Google about dinosaurs.
The first result when you search: “what happened to the dinosaurs” is a page from AnswersInGenesis.org (a Creationist organisation who argue against the theory of evolution), and is given Google’s V.I.P. treatment – a special box with large text that basically “here’s your answer – right here!”
Well, it IS an interesting answer, but not one I’d recommend to a kid for their school assignment.
I was quite amused, and got inspired to geek out and really dissect what went wrong here. So much so that it triggered me to start a blog about library and information stuff, which I’ve wanted to do for a while, but lacked the motivation until now. (Yay, first post! Hello world! etc)
I had a go at Googling the same thing. By the time I did, the V.I.P. box has been updated with a page from University of Illinois (methinks that little “Feedback” link under the result got a few clicks).
However, the first result under the page is still the Answers in Genesis page, and a book by Dr. Kem Ham (CEO of the same group) appears to the left of the web results:
Thanks for nothing, Google?
No, I wouldn’t say that. As far as I’m concerned, Google is doing its job, which is to return the most relevant and highest ranked web results to a particular query. The page titles use very similar to the words to the search query and it even sources a book which has nearly the same title. Someone could have typed in this search query because they were looking for information about this book or this organisation, for whatever reason. They would have been successful. Also, as far as Google is concerned, AnswersinGenesis.org is a good website. It’s updated frequently, it doesn’t have viruses, and lots of other pages link to it.
It’s our job to find the information that answers our question.
But when Google is not forthcoming, how do we do it? It’s simple: search better.
Basically I think the problem is the search query. Traditionally speaking, searches are meant to be based on keywords. Typing in an actual question, like “what happened to…” is literally asking Google to spoon-feed you an answer. Generally, and if the question is simple enough, Google is smart enough to do it. e.g.:
Sometimes this function backfires, and the dinosaurs search is a fantastic example. It kind of reminds us that Google is not a knowledge machine, it’s just an internet search engine.
If we change our approach, we get better results immediately.
I took a keyword approach and searched for: dinosaurs extinction
Clearly “extinction” makes a better keyword than “happened to”.
Now if I really use my google-fu, and add a site:edu limiter to limit to websites with an educational domain, it gets better again (and cuts out those pesky Wikipedia results). Have a look:
SO much better. You see, we were so preoccupied with whether or not we could type questions into Google, that we didn’t stop to think if we should.