Test your search skills with SearchReSearch

Many of us seem to be in Google bashing mode at the moment but they do produce good stuff at times, or at least some of their employees do. Dan Russell, who works at Google, has an excellent blog called SearchReSearch at http://searchresearch1.blogspot.com/.  The blog is “about search, search skills, teaching search, learning how to search, learning how to use Google effectively, learning how to do research. It also covers a good deal of sensemaking and information foraging“. Dan comes up with a topic for research and invites people to comment on what they find and how they found it. The questions usually arise when Dan is out and about and spots something curious. A recent query was about the roadside use of weedkiller and was asked because he and a friend had noticed brown strips of dead vegetation along the edge of the highway. (See ‘How much death at the roadside’ http://searchresearch1.blogspot.com/2013/03/answer-how-much-death-at-roadside.html).

The questions are a great way to test your search skills and see how others have tackled them. Don’t be deterred by the US emphasis. After all, many of us sometimes have to research industries and events in other countries. It’s wonderful exercise for the little grey cells.

Now you see it, now you don’t

April is going to be a very busy month for me this year. As well as speaking at conferences I am also giving six full day workshops so am having to prepare the presentations, handouts and notes well in advance. When it comes to the Google sessions the material the delegates receive never matches exactly what they see on their screens during the practicals. That’s par for the course where Google is concerned and it’s a great way of getting across to people how Google messes up enhances search results. The problem I had yesterday, and am still having this morning, is that Google seems to have dumped me into several major ‘live experiments’ and results keep changing second by second. The consequence is that it is impossible for me to pull together a set of consistent screen shots but I, and the delegates, will just have to live with that. And it makes a good story on the day!

If you don’t know what Google’s ‘live experiments’ are the YouTube video at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=J5RZOU6vK4Q will enlighten you. In essence, Google tests out changes to its search and ranking algorithms on users before deciding whether or not to go ahead with the changes. It could be me or you who ends up being one of Google’s lab rats. We are not asked if we want to be part of the test nor are we told. Most of the time the changes are so minor that we don’t notice the difference but occasionally they lead to some very bizarre results. See my blog posting from a couple of years ago when Google decided that coots were really lions (http://www.rba.co.uk/wordpress/2011/02/12/google-decides-that-coots-are-really-lions/). What I’ve been seeing over the last couple of days is not in that league but extremely irritating all the same.

One of test searches is fairly straightforward – copper extraction north wales. This is what I saw:

Search in Google Chrome - no emboldened words in the extract
Search in Google Chrome – no emboldened terms in the extract

What’s wrong with that you might ask. At first glance it looks as though Google is dropping terms from my search because none of them are emboldened in the extracts. On closer inspection, though, the terms and their synonyms are present. I ran Verbatim on the search and saw a similar set of results with no emboldening apart from words in the title.

I use Chrome as my default browser and wondering if it was an issue with that I tried Firefox. The emboldened terms reappeared.

Search in Firefox - emboldened terms present in the extracts
Search in Firefox – emboldened terms present in the extracts


Internet Explorer also displayed emboldened terms.

I went back to Chrome and ran the search in an Incognito window. The search terms appeared emboldened in the extracts.

Thinking the problem was due to me being signed in to a Google account I signed out and ran the search. No emboldened terms. I cleared the cache and cookies. No emboldened terms. I disconnected Chrome from my Google account. No emboldened terms. I disabled all of the extensions. No emboldened terms. It was clear that Google was not going to show me emboldened terms when using a normal Chrome window. Why is it so important? Because it is a quick way of initially assessing the relevance of the results. No emboldened terms in the extract suggests that they were not found in the text of the page. If this is indeed an experiment and not a local glitch on my system, and Google decides to roll this out to all users we are all going to waste a lot of time wading through irrelevant results.

On to possible experiment number 2. Google sometimes ignores the setting that tells it how many results to display on a page. I have set mine to 100 but occasionally it reverts to just 10. Refreshing the page or going into settings and saving them again usually works for me. This is a minor irritant, unlike experiment number 3.

Google has started showing just six results for some searches. Phil Bradley is one who is definitely not impressed with this (Google results – down to 6 on a page and most of those are wrong! ). Then I started seeing it for some of my own searches.

I didn’t see 6 results but 4! (As an aside, the emboldened search terms in the extract have returned). The fifth was a result for similar searches with an annotation that indicated ‘& co second hand’ had been omitted. A couple of the results were OK-ish but I was hoping for more detailed information. Is there really so little information for this query? Like Phil, when I clicked on to the next page I was back to sensible results. Unlike Phil, using Verbatim on the search worked for me and overrode the experiment, so again I was back to sensible results. This morning, I could not replicate the 6 results per page display.

Experiment number 4: annotations below the extracts. Some of these annotations look like headings from the pages themselves but others are not. I cannot replicate what I saw yesterday and didn’t take any screenshots of this one. I am definitely sure I didn’t dream it because a couple of my network on Twitter have reported similar experiences.

This continual round of disappearing, reappearing, disappearing “features” is infuriating. Yes, we can all go off and use other search engines but there are times when the type of content and level of coverage tempts us back. You do have to know how to use the advanced search commands to get anything sensible out of Google, but even then success is not guaranteed. This is an area I concentrate on in my workshops. The next one on Google is being organised by UKeiG in Manchester (see the UKeiG web site for details). The title “Make Google behave: techniques for better results” may seem a little overoptimistic given my own and other people’s experiences, but there are plenty of tricks we can employ to get usable results.

Given that Google is now just over 13 years old and a teenager it is not surprising that it has become somewhat truculent. It’s when it starts going through the silent grunting phase that we need to really start worrying.


Search tools for research information – Kindle version

At last! I’ve managed to convert my article on “Free search tools for research information”  into a Kindle version (http://www.amazon.com/dp/B00C11XLVQ). It took me four attempts to get it right (and I hope it is indeed OK). The Amazon instructions are here, there and everywhere. Amazon’s general guide on producing a Kindle version is OK, but it’s the detailed stuff that is hard to find. The link I have given takes you to Amazon.com. If your “local” Amazon is different you’ll need to search for either the title or my name in the Kindle store.

Latest Tales from the Terminal Room

The March issue of Tales from the Terminal Room is now available at http://www.rba.co.uk/tfttr/archives/2013/mar2013.shtml

This month’s issue includes:

  • Search Strategies new articles available
  • Search tools
    • Google Flight Search takes off in Europe
    • How search works – sort of
    • Google Reader – what next
  • Advanced Google workshop change of venue
  • How to check your council tax banding for free
  • Top Tips for search and business information
  • The case of the disappearing press release
  • Workshops on business information
  • Twitter notes
  • Forthcoming workshops and meetings

The newsletter is a compilation of recent articles from my blog, so if you are a regular follower of the blog you will have read the articles already.

Search Strategies new articles

New Search Strategies articles are now available.

“Excluding sites from your search” (subscribers only) is at http://www.rba.co.uk/search/subscribers/ExcludeSites.shtml

“From tourism to research information: how to change the emphasis of results” (subscribers only) covers techniques for changing the type of information returned by the search engines, for example consumer vs. more research focused pages (http://www.rba.co.uk/search/subscribers/Emphasis.shtml).

“Free Search Tools for Finding Research Information” is a 42 page PDF covering five things you need to know about Google, advanced searching in Google, alternative web search tools, institutional repositories and specialist tools. If you do not wish to purchase an annual subscription to the whole of Search Strategies, this article can be purchased on its own for £5.99. See http://www.rba.co.uk/search/ResearchInformationTools.shtml for further details.

 A full list of Search Strategies fact sheets and articles is at http://www.rba.co.uk/search/.

Search Strategies covers facts and tips, reviews of search tools and detailed strategies for more effective searching. Some information such as the fact sheets and Top Tips are available free of charge. The more detailed information on strategies is available on subscription. Annual individual subscription rates are £48/year (£40 + £8 VAT). Multi-user and corporate rates are available on request.

Details of how to purchase a subscription are at http://www.rba.co.uk/search/purchase.shtml

Workshops on business information

Zanran search on UK beef imports

A reminder that I am running two business information workshops in London in April.

The first is “Introduction to Business Research” on Thursday, 18th April. This workshop provides an introduction to many areas of business research including statistics, official company information, market information, news sources and how to build search strategies. It will cover explanations of the jargon and terminology, regulatory issues, assessing the quality of information, primary and secondary sources. Further information is available on the TFPL website.

The second is “Business information: key web resources”, which is being held the day after on Friday 19th April. This workshop looks in more detail at the resources that are available for different types of information, alerting services and free vs. fee. It also covers search strategies for tracking down industry, market and corporate reports. Details are on the TFPL website.

Both workshops include practical sessions during which you can follow the exercises provided, try out some of the enquiries you’ve recently had to tackle, or just generally explore. I am on hand during the practicals to help out with searches or advise on how to approach a particularly difficult piece of research. Be warned, though, you will be asked at the end of day to nominate, as a group, your top 10 search tips and tips. That’s when the arguments get serious!

Last year’s London workshop Top Tips are at http://www.rba.co.uk/wordpress/2012/11/25/top-tips-for-business-information/. More recently a group in Manchester came up with a very interesting combination of search techniques and business resources (see http://www.rba.co.uk/wordpress/2013/03/07/top-tips-on-search-and-business-information/).

Firmica – Slovenian company formations

I don’t usually review organisations that provide company formation services but Firmica.si  is worth a mention. As well as help with setting up or selling a business in Slovenia they provide some very useful information on procedures and doing business. The information and related content is under Frequently Asked Questions. The whole site is in Slovene so you will need to dust off Google translate, or a similar tool, if your knowledge of the language is limited.

Google Flight Search takes off in Europe

Google’s Flight Search has launched in parts of Europe. It has been available in the US since September 2011 and can now be accessed by travellers in the UK, France, Italy, Spain and the Netherlands. You have to use your local Google to get to the appropriate version of Flight Search, for example http://www.google.co.uk/flights if you are in the UK or http://www.google.fr/flights if you are in France.

There is a warning on the search page that Ryanair, Easyjet, Aer Lingus, Thomas Cook and Lufthansa are not included. That is a substantial number of flights and two of the major budget airlines missing from the search. Selecting departure and destination airports and dates is straightforward and there are additional options for selecting non-stop flights, airline, maximum price, duration and slider bars for specifying departure or arrival time.

Google Flights search option
Google Flights search options


Confusingly, flights from some of the airlines that are not covered by Flight Search do sometimes appear in the results but, in most cases, without prices. I entered dates for a round trip from London to Munich. There was one option for Lufthansa that specified a price (£178) whilst the others from were “unknown”.

Google Flights search London to Munich
Google Flights search London to Munich

If you select a priced option you can then book the flight via BudgetAir. If you choose an “unknown” you see an option to check the price on the airline’s own website but you then have to enter your search from scratch.

So far, I am not impressed. There are far too many airlines that are not included and Flight Search does not offer anything over and above other comparison sites. I am not sure how many people will actually use it. You have to know the URL as searching on, for example, London Munich flights does not bring up a link to Flight Search. There is no perfect flight comparison site and I always use a combination of services such as Opodo and direct searches on the airlines’ own sites. There is nothing here to tempt me to add Google to the list.

How to check your council tax banding for free

Like many residents in my area I have just received a letter from an organisation offering to check the council tax banding of my house. The letter suggests that other houses in my street have a lower tax banding, which is hardly surprising as there are houses of different design (terraced, semi detached, detached, flats) and age. They say they will check my council tax banding and claim a refund on my behalf if I have been incorrectly banded. The fee for this if I/they win is a mere 30% of any refund. Oops, sorry, that should be 30% + VAT  – not immediately obvious and buried in the small print.

If you have received similar letters dump them in the recycling bin!

You can easily check your council tax banding for free by going to https://www.gov.uk/council-tax-bands. If you live in Scotland go to http://www.saa.gov.uk/. Enter your postcode and you’ll be able to see the band for each property in your area.

VOA council tax band check on RG4 5BE
VOA council tax band check on RG4 5BE

If you think your property is in the wrong band there is a link to a page where you can appeal against the banding, but think twice before doing it. The reassessment might decide that you should be in a higher band. And in one of my local forums someone confessed to appealing against their banding because it was higher than their neighbours. The result was that their neighbours’ tax band was increased. The appellant was not popular for a very long time!

There is more information on checking your band and the appeal process at http://www.moneysavingexpert.com/reclaim/council-tax-bands-change

Advanced Google workshop – change of venue

The advanced Google workshop that I am running for UKeiG (How to make Google behave) has a new venue. It is still being held in Manchester but will now be in the 4th Floor Teaching Suite, Main Library, University of Manchester M13 9PP. The date remains unchanged (April 30th, 2013).

We shall be looking at what goes on “underneath the bonnet” and covering Google’s advanced commands and search options in detail. We’ll also be reviewing Google’s specialist tools including the Public Data Explorer, Scholar and many more. As usual with my workshops there will be time allocated for practical sessions so that you can try out the techniques for yourself. Further details and booking information are available on the UKeiG website at http://www.ukeig.org.uk/trainingevent/make-google-behave-techniques-better-results-karen-blakeman