“Search Needs A Shake Up” writes Oren Etzion in an op-ad article in the comments column of Nature (4th Aug 2011). The under-the-hood discovery technology has not significantly progressed, even while more-or-less helpful widgets have proliferated on search pages, and search results are transformed on-the-fly to fit almost any mobile device. Most ordinary people still want their search-engine to be like a ‘magic oracle’ — ask a natural language question, and get a one-line correct answer back. Of course, that doesn’t work — which is why Yahoo Answers and its more professional imitators are so popular for those with few search skills. The problem is, the laziness of their users makes unpaid slaves of their helpers.
But until we get that magic one question / one answer solution (Etzion outlines some research on that, but don’t hold your breath) how about just teaching people to search properly, ideally intensively and from primary school level onwards? It’s not rocket science. It’s no more difficult than learning the basics of the Highway Code by heart, or some basic smatterings of Spanish. Doing quality search should be as natural as basic literacy. Once the school-level training is bedded down, then refuse entry to university applicants who cannot pass a rigorous one-hour “search and find” test. The kids and their teachers will soon get the message.