Google for research: If it’s wrong, why does it feel so right?

In the uni library world we encourage students to use the library’s discovery layers and database interfaces to search for information. We tell first-years over and over again not to use Google. Is this the right thing to do?

Here’s an information retrieval story from today when I was looking for journal articles on a certain topic:

  1. Used library discovery layer. Didn’t like my results.
  2. Used most recommended database #1, which is small but specialised. Simple 2-term search connected by AND. Some success, but not exactly a jackpot of relevant articles, but a few that were of interest.
  3. Added some synomyms to my search strategy to broaden. Results were the same.
  4. Used most recommended database #2. Large, but multidisciplinary. Had to add more terms to refine the search and experiment with my keywords a bit more. Not much success.
  5. Went back to discovery layer and fiddled with my keywords a bit more. Still not satisfied.
  6. Went to Google. Put in my 2 keywords, no syntax or synonyms or anything. Based on the nature of my search terms, suggestions from Google scholar appeared at the top of the results list. It suggested two articles that were basically my ~dream articles~ in terms of relevance, and highly cited.
  7. Clicked on them. Paywall.
  8. Copied and pasted the article titles into library search. There they were, in databases I hadn’t looked at in steps 3 or 5. Clicked through to full text, and downloaded the pdfs in all their glory.

Now, Google was by far the most helpful tool in terms of discovery (step 6). It was very simple. I didn’t even intentionally go to Google Scholar, just plain old Google. The Scholar results were presented right in my face, there was no effort on my part in doing this. But in terms of access, Google let me down (step 7). I happened to know there was a good chance that the library would have access, so I went looking there, once I had the article titles.

The databases and library search tool were not as good at discovery. It was trickier and more frustrating to find stuff,  I had to use some advanced search strategies, and common techniques like broadening my terms didn’t always work (steps 2-5). The few relevant results that I did get were not as good as what I later found on Google. Of course this is not always my experience.  It depends on the amount of literature available on your topic, how well your search terms match the vocabulary of the databases and the literature, and endless other factors. My topic happened to be a little bit niche on this occasion, which is the kind of situation when I think Google provides a better search experience. The real value in the library search and library-subscribed databases was the access itself (step 8).

I know this is just one anecdote. But c’mon, Google can be a life saver sometimes. Let’s not demonise it. Maybe next time a student is stuck in a rut not finding relevant information in databases, rather than complicate the search strategy, just use the Google workaround!


#BlogJune 4 – Let Me Google That For You : reference services in an age of independence

The expectation in my age group is that you should know how to google. There’s a website built entirely for sarcasm purposes called Let Me Google That For You. Say someone reaches out on social media or a forum asking a question that can VERY EASILY be solved through a google search. You reply, but you don’t tell them the information; you send them a link that will tell them what they should have done.

Person 1: “Does anyone know how big the sun is?”

Person 2: “Here’s your answer.

A friend of mine was asking for peer-reviewed research on facebook. “Does anyone have any articles on something-something?” I didn’t think this was an appropriate forum to seek out such information, and I am a jerk, so I decided to punish him. I knew there must be a Let Me Google Scholar That For You somewhere out there. There is, by the way. So I sent him one with keywords relevant to his question. Received a “yeah, I tried that…” in response. Some helpful librarian I am.

But it makes me think we live in a culture that punishes (real or perceived) ignorance. No wonder students don’t flock to the potentially judgy librarian at the reference desk with their “stupid questions”. The reference librarians’ job, sometimes, is literally googling things for people. That’s not a bad thing, but the demand for such services has declined dramatically as information retrieval became less specialised and more expected of everybody.

I detect a sense of shame from students that ask me for help with finding information. One student got jokingly heckled by his mates, as if it was “cheating” to have a librarian help him find journal articles for his assignment. I don’t want students to feel that way. But no matter how approachable, professional, and “here to help” librarians are with our information services, there’s no way we can push back against that expectation in society that you ought to do your own searching.

Of course there are some libraries where traditional “reference” is still in business. Law libraries, Medical libraries, Parliamentary libraries, etc. Their client base is made up of busy people, usually with complex and specific information inquires, and why on earth wouldn’t they take advantage of such a specialised service. But I know academic libraries are rapidly abandoning the “reference desk”, if they haven’t already. “Reference librarian” roles have morphed into more education-focused roles. And I think that’s the way of the future.

Google’s logo

I’m loving Google’s new logo.

By which I mean I barely noticed the change.

Usually when something familiar suddenly changes, particularly a design such as a layout or logo, I notice immediately, and usually not in a positive way. Some people have reacted this way to Google’s new logo. I get it. It’s a long-standing and familiar thing in our lives. Imagine if you woke up one day and your spouse’s face looked entirely different. It would be off-putting.

This time I felt the change was positive and mild. I think these are the reasons why:

It’s still got the same familiar colour scheme. The day they abandon those 4 friendly colours will be the day I riot. The colours are the most significant part of the logo for me.

I’m used to it changing. You know how the logo is always changing to commemorate special days? There’s even an official name for it – the Google Doodle. It has caused me to think of Google’s logo as a dynamic, not static, thing.

I don’t actually look at the logo that much. I never really fostered that much familiarity with Google’s logo in my daily web use. Like  Matthew Kassel said in The Observer, chrome users don’t actually go to Google’s home page, we use the browser bar to search, and only see the logo in its unimposing location of the top left corner on the search result page. For me, the main thing that takes getting used to is the new tab icon:



Because website tab icons are something I look at and interact with on a more constant level.

Meh. I didn’t even like the old one! Times New Roman (it’s probably not exactly Times New Roman, sorry typographers) is not a logo font. Don’t get me wrong – Google made it work for them – but it had a certain “old web” aesthetic to it. Opting for a friendly sans serif font is a welcome move in my opinion.


Today I had a bit of a laugh at Phil Bradley’s post on what happens when you ask Google about dinosaurs.


Stop confusing Google, you guys!

The first result when you search: “what happened to the dinosaurs” is a page from (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!”

Dinosaurs are used more than almost anything else to indoctrinate children and adults in the idea of millions of years of earth history. However, the Bible gives us a framework for explaining dinosaurs in terms of thousands of years of history, including the mystery of when they lived and what happened to them.

screenshot by Phil Bradley

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.

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:


2 strikes outta 3.

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. And as far as Google is concerned, 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

That’s a bit more interesting.

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:

dinosaur extinct edu


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.