Is your search engine getting smarter?

Thanks to an emerging concept known as “intelligent searching,” teachers and students soon might have at their disposal a variety of online tools designed to help them more effectively navigate the vast amount of information on the internet.

From “federated” search technologies, which enable users to search through multiple online databases at once, to customizable user interfaces that enable individuals to define their own search criteria more effectively, technology architects are finding ways to give users more control over how they find, receive, and process data mined on the web.

“Everyone has their own definition for what ‘intelligent searching’ is,” says Ilene Slavick, director of marketing for Cuadra Associates Inc., a California-based information management firm that specializes in building intelligent search tools for use with corporate databases, government agencies, records archives, museums, and other organizations. But the basic idea is to give internet users “a variety of options to make their search more precise,” she added.

These innovations likely will translate into good news for educators, many of whom have struggled to help their students make sense of the vast amount of information they find online. One of the big problems with the internet, they say, isn’t finding information, but rather knowing when to trust what you find.

“We live in an era when access to a broad range of information is valued more than at any previous time,” observed Raymond Yeagley, former superintendent of the Rochester Public Schools in New Hampshire. “In today’s world, better search tools and the ability to use them effectively are nearly as essential as the information itself.”

It’s that kind of thinking that has engineers at Google and other search-engine providers constantly looking for ways to provide faster access to more reliable information.

In an interview with eSchool News, Debbie Jaffe, group product marketing manager for Google Inc.–whose name has become synonymous with internet searches–said the company has integrated, or plans to integrate, a myriad of innovations designed to help web surfers more easily find what they’re looking for.

Building on Google Scholar, a search service launched last year for researchers and students that restricts queries to entries from scholarly journals and research publications (see “New search service creates ‘Google for scholars’“), the company also has unveiled Google Suggest, which offers suggestions culled from an index of online search terms to help users better define their searches.

Looking for information relevant to a specific web site? Google’s Site Restrict feature lets users search for relevant documents limited to a particular domain.

For example, if students wanted to look for admissions information relevant to Stanford University, Jaffe said, they could restrict their search to Stanford University web sites by typing “Admissions” Site: Standford.edu, and so on. The same approach also works for dictionary definitions, she said. Type “Define: Emerging” into the search bar, and Google responds with “coming into view.”

Other features now coming into view for Google users include a Wild-Card Search tool, which would allow users to search for answers to a particular question by inserting an asterisk in the search phrase where the missing information should be. For instance, a student doing a report on Abraham Lincoln might type in the phrase “Abraham Lincoln was the * president of the United States.”

Google, in turn, would replace the asterisk with a suggested answer. In this case: “Abraham Lincoln was the sixteenth president of the United States.”

Google also is testing a feature called Num Range, which would allow users to narrow their search by limiting their query to a particular time period. For instance, a user might search for “American Presidents 1870-1900,” or “Supreme Court Justices 1980-2005,” and so on.

Down the road, Jaffe said, the company would like to provide tools that enable users to customize their individual user interfaces by saving, organizing, and returning search results relevant to their personal preferences, though the company isn’t quite there yet, she said.

Google is perhaps the most well-known search tool on the internet, but it certainly isn’t the only one experimenting with the benefits of intelligent search features.

Sharon Mombru, senior product manager for Scirus, an online search engine that specializes in locating scientific information for students, doctors, researchers, and others (see “Search tool finds scientific content“), says her company is constantly working to “fine-tune” its engine in hopes of producing better results, in less time.

As information continues to multiply on the broader internet, Mombru anticipates the market for specialized search engines such as Scirus is likely to grow.

“It becomes very important when you read about how much information is actually out there these days,” said Mombru of her company’s specialized search engine, which reportedly serves more than 1 million users worldwide. “It’s really the first step in intelligent searching.”

Rather than relying on general search tools such as Google and Yahoo, Mombru says, users who know what they’re after can use a specialized search engine such as Scirus to weed out some of the useless information that often results from a broader online search.

To provide results faster, Scirus allows its users to conduct Advanced Searches. Using special matching and pattern-recognition search protocols, the engine reportedly can search for documents by author, subject, time of publication, source, and subject area.

The idea, said Mombru, is to give users more control over their searches, helping them find more of what they need–and less of what they don’t.

A new feature called Repository Search lets users confine their queries to a specific collection or university library. Users then can choose to search only that database or expand their search to cross-reference other databases as well, she said.

Like Google, Scirus is a free service.

Other online search tools worth a look include Blinkx and Dashboard.

Free to download, Blinkx provides the ability to search web sites, personal documents, multimedia channels, eMail messages, and other documents stored on a user’s hard drive or somewhere else on the broader internet with a single query.

Dashboard–www.nat.org/dashboard–takes the idea of intelligent searching to the genius level by attempting to provide users with information before they even ask for it.

So how does it work?

“While you read eMail, browse the web, write a document, or talk to your friends on IM [instant messaging], the dashboard does its best to proactively find objects that are relevant to your current activity and to display them in a friendly way, saving you from digging around through your stuff like a disorganized filing clerk,” explains its creators on the Dashboard web site.

“For example, if a friend IMs you and says, ‘I can’t wait for our camping trip this weekend!’ the dashboard will show things like your recent eMails about the camping trip, your camping bookmarks, and any files or notes you’ve got on your hard drive about camping,” according to the site.

The documents then are displayed in a specially created dashboard on your web browser, allowing you to click on the information at will.

Other web sites, such as Gnooks.com, experiment with the idea of visual searches. Gnooks arranges search results not as a list, but as a diagram that visually depicts the relative “distance” between these results and their subject.

For instance, Gnooks includes an interactive Literature Map that let users search for works by their favorite authors. The user starts by typing an author’s name into the search bar–say, Norman Mailer. The engine then works by displaying the author’s name at the center of an interactive web, with the names of other authors and novels branching out in all directions (like a spider web) around it. From the center, the closest names share the most similarities with the initial writer. Conversely, the farther away a name or term appears from the original name, the less similar this work is, according to the engine.

Using the example of Norman Mailer, the engine returns familiar names such as Tom Wolfe and Herman Melville–both of whom appear close to the center, indicating that they share some similarities with Mailer. Literary figures John Updike and Ernest Hemingway appear farther from the nucleus of the search, indicating their works share fewer similarities with Mailer’s.

As these and other search tools continue to develop, educators say they’re looking forward to helping students conduct more refined, reliable online queries–without all the fuss.

“I am excited about having better search engines that will help us get the information we want more quickly and efficiently,” said Marc Liebman, superintendent of the Berryessa Union School District in San Jose, Calif., in an eMail message to eSchool News.

These days, he said, the vast amount of information on the internet, coupled with the questionable validity of many resources, really limits what teachers can do.

“Many teachers will cache a number of sites ahead of time for students so that their searches are limited to resources the teacher knows that they will use,” Liebman explained.

But that approach has its drawbacks, too, he said.

“While it saves time for the students, it is very time-consuming for the teachers … and can be a factor in teachers not wanting to bother using technology in their teaching,” he noted. “If it isn’t quick and easy, teachers, like the rest of us, will find another way of doing things.”

Concluded Liebman: “That has been one of the issues in getting teachers to effectively use technology for years. A more effective search tool will help get more teachers to use technology in their work and that of their students.”

Links:

Cuadra Associates Inc.
http://www.cuadra.com

Google Inc.
http://www.google.com

Scirus
http://www.scirus.com/srsapp/

Blinkx
http://www.blinkx.com

Gnooks
http://gnooks.com

Dashboard
http://www.nat.org/dashboard