No Relax

Sophisticated search operator is a metaphor of modern life

December 9, 2010

Joseph Janes

I had a splendid time at the Internet Librarian conference last fall (and not just because I made it into a birthday-celebration weekend in Monterey, though that and the yummy meals didn’t hurt matters any). It’s a crisply conducted conference and draws a varied and eager crowd.

This year, I was particularly attracted to an entire day of sessions on search. Several connoisseurs were on the menu, so with appropriate thanks to Chris Sherman, Mary Ellen Bates, and Gary Price, from whom I lifted these tidbits, I thought I’d share some of what I found most appealing and striking from the day.

First of all, Bing. Not yet a verb, but an increasingly interesting and viable search tool. A full range of services, of course, with an emphasis on things like travel, shopping, and so on as you know from the commercials. Did you also know they had licensed a number of music and TV shows for free streaming? Neither did I. Nor did I know that they tried to balance points of view on controversial issues (try a search on <should we bail out the banks> and look to the upper left).

I got my first good look at Blekko, which is an atrocious name for a search engine—unless it was developed by the guys at Mad magazine. It’s not yet in public release, one of those ask-us-and-we’ll-let-you-look deals, and apparently it allows for customization of the database or results (a search like <global warming/green> would be different from <global warming/tech>, for example). Worth watching when it gets released.

Some Google tricks were on offer as well. We’ve all discovered Instant Search by now, I assume. (Yawn.) Apparently, as only Google can do, they’ve calculated that not having to hit return or click the little box will save the average searcher two to five seconds per search, or a total of 350 million hours per year. How nice.

On a more worthwhile note, Google’s Image Swirl has real potential to make image searching more effective. It tries to group images into related categories and allows browsing among them. Real-time search results (such as from Twitter and Facebook) can be organized on a timeline to bring a little order to the chaos: Go to Updates in the left-hand sidebar. I also hadn’t realized they were leveraging YouTube assets to provide episode-level access to TV shows (search the show under Videos, if they’ve got them, the episode guides will appear on the left).

Back to Bing and the most impressive thing I heard about: advanced operators. Really advanced. Trust Microsoft to hide these and write documentation for them that looks like a 1975 IBM manual . . . but they’re there; search <bing advanced operator reference>. Several versions of familiar Google tools such as intitle:, url:, site:, OR, and the like, as well as some very keen ideas. Like imagesize:, which is pretty obvious. Or near:, a proximity operator which made me mist up a bit, thinking of the good old days of search tools one could actually control. Or inanchor:, which is very interesting, allowing search in the anchor text on a page . . . almost a little bit sorta maybe like a subject search?

The operator with the best name, though, has got to be the one that forces Bing to search all the words in a long string with equal weight (typically, beyond five words, the later words don’t necessarily have to appear in results). It’s called norelax:, which is not only descriptive of the operator, it’s also provocatively metaphorical for our times . . . but that’s another story.

JOE JANES is associate professor at the Information School of the University of Washington.