On Saturday I picked up a special one-off Google “how to” £9.99 magazine in W.H. Smiths (the biggest UK magazine chain store). It claimed to be a comprehensive guide to Google, yet devoted just a half of one of its hundreds of pages to some basic search modifiers such as “quote marks for phrase”. And most of that half-page was screenshots. This inexplicable dismissal of search as a teachable skill is something that’s been worrying me for some time. Despite the absolute necessity of learning to search, to find and re-find — it’s not a skill that’s taught at primary, secondary or further education, except in the most perfunctory manner. Students enter my new technologies undergraduate class and the British education system has simply not equipped 95% of them with the most basic knowledge of how to skilfully search using Google.

Stephen E. Arnold of Beyond Search has a long post today in which he sees this same inexplicable mood appearing in businesses, where bad search skills have a direct financial impact. He calls the new mood “anti-search”…

“People at this meeting don’t want search. These attributes are anti search, and I think that is the big trend for 2011. Everyday users of online systems don’t know how to formulate a query, figure out most business intelligence reports, and have little time to invest in piecing together an “answer.” The goal is the intellectual equivalent of buying a do-nut when hungry. Quick, easy, and probably not good in the long run but okay for the now moment.

What is anti search?

I think it is a culmination of many experiences. People who did lousy research in college don’t become great researchers when they get a job, gain 30 pounds, and have to juggle life’s rubber balls.

Anti search, therefore, is the need for systems that are easy to use, require little intellectual effort to learn, and deliver “good enough” information. Maybe information “on training wheels” is a better way to think about anti search.

Anti search 2011 is taking root in an environment with several characteristics…”

This is a ridiculous attitude, since properly training staff in search would pay for itself. For instance, in a recent Network World (2010) article on findability, it was said that research has found that professionals…

“spend 20% of their time looking for information and they find what they are looking for less than half of the time. That’s equivalent to spending 10 weeks a year searching for information and remaining ignorant half of that time.”

And a summary of the Summer 2010 ROI Research survey of 500 search-engine users found that…

“19% abandon the online search, taking it offline if they can’t find the information”

The UK business situation was reported in research from official UK government researchers YouGov, The Costs of Traditional Filing. Small and medium businesses in the UK…

“[staff in an average firm] spend approx. 3 months a year looking for [paper] documents […] 87% of respondents spend up to 2 hours every day looking for documents”

The national waste of time was estimated to cost £42 million each day. And that’s just paper documents. Add to that the time that untrained staff waste looking for things online (“spend 20% of their time looking for information and they find what they are looking for less than half of the time”), and it seems there’s some serious wastage going on in businesses. And I’d suspect that matters are the same in much of the UK’s public sector.