Finder's Keepers

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Journalism's perpetual learning cycle drew me into the craft and has kept me rapt for a dozen years now. Its appeal lies not only in the process of learning new subjects, but also in the process of learning how to learn as the world of information evolves. While I'm aware that the Internet has profoundly affected my career and life, I realize that more information in the hands of more people is not necessarily better. Unfettered and unvetted, all this information does not necessarily make us more informed.

Before ubiquitous Internet access, journalists, students, and the public at large often relied on wondrous librarians who possessed an infinite supply of knowledge and finely honed searching instincts. Certainly, the mind can be trained to find and filter information, but some simply have a knack for it. Those of us called upon to perform these tasks daily have welcomed the Internet information glut with glee. And in the process, we have refined our search skills, defined our parameters, and embraced Boolean as a natural thought process.

But the vast majority of people didn't even know they needed all of this information until they found themselves drowning in it. Where they might once have accepted a doctor's prescription at face value, for example, they now hit the Web, run a search with their favorite engine, and are deluged with results, many of which are likely to be glorified ads or haphazard conjecture. Picture the average person faced with every book in a public library heaped into piles on the floor around him. Now multiply that by every library you've ever heard of, throw in an equal number you've never heard of, and sprinkle liberally with every bit of junk mail you receive in a lifetime. Now you can picture the average person's search results.

This may seem silly to the professional searcher, who knows where to look and what to ask. But I'm often asked by a less-savvy searcher, "Where do I find [insert desired information here]?" Yes, they've done a Google or Yahoo! search, but none of the results resembled what they were trying to find, leaving them convinced that the information simply can't be found online. Most of the time, I take a seat at the computer and, minutes later, have three or four results that will at least lead them in the right direction. "How did you do that?" they ask.

Simple and not so simple. Through daily navigation, I've begun to map the unruly mind of the Internet. I've begun to see a pattern in its chaotic thought and can extract from it at least a path to the information I seek. As I trek, I leave myself a trail of breadcrumbs to the more useful areas of the Web by bookmarking and classifying dozens of useful, trustworthy sites to simplify frequently searched subject areas.

It seems obvious to the professional information-seeker that relying on trusted sources will yield, more often than not, reliable information (especially given the recent spate of fake press releases and hacker-altered Web sites). But another challenge for successful searching is knowing how to ask the right question. That's where those librarian instincts come into play. They know where to look and that searching for the name of the drug may not answer your questions as well as looking up side effects or natural alternatives.

With the latest superstar search engine, Teoma, search results have taken on a more evolved, "faceted" form and are sifted and sorted into sponsored results, suggestions on how to refine your search, resources for additional links, and a helpfully separated "mass results" section. One way Teoma provides better results is by going beyond traditional page-ranking methods to determine authority, in addition to relevancy. To determine the authority or quality of a site's content, Teoma uses Subject-Specific Popularity, which ranks a site based on the number of same-subject pages that reference it. In essence, Teoma attempts to quantify, digitally, the trustworthiness of results.

Teoma has taken a step in the right direction by instituting a process by which information sources will be pre-screened for the unwary searcher. Information must be defined and quantified, and technology must allow it to function like the minds of those trusted librarians. It should order and catalog and help us find a place to begin. But I wonder, as the algorithms' ability to emulate librarians becomes increasingly sophisticated, if a search will ever answer our questions and then push us to ask the questions we did not know we had?