Finding what you’re looking for

The latest episode of my favorite new podcast, On the Media offshoot TLDR, managed to find a person who hadn’t yet used the internet. Once they found an inroad (for this user, it was finding clips of old football games), he was hooked.

They noted, though, that it took him a while to get the hang of searching on Google. Even for people using Boolean searching, the things we’re looking for don’t immediately make themselves known.

Here are three ideas to help take your search deeper and find something when initial efforts fail:

  • Rethink your keywords Use alternate search terms, It’s a simple step people often don’t try.
  • Narrow your search For example, if you’re looking for a newspaper article by headline and it doesn’t appear, try searching for the newspaper itself by date, then search within those results.
  • Ask a librarian I’m surprised at how many people don’t make libraries part of their information-seeking routine. Librarians are professional searchers and have access to subscription resources and deep web search engines that the average person doesn’t have access to. And it’s FREE. What are you waiting for? Ask a librarian!

Taking a break and getting it right

I’m back to writing after a two-week break. I had a list of topics, but I just wasn’t motivated to write. It was as if my mind wouldn’t go past those topic sentences into the meat of what I’d hoped to write about. Now, after a quick break in routine, I’m refreshed and ready to write.

So refreshed, in fact, that this week I decided to put all planned topics aside and write about how I got past the writer’s block and back into writing mode. None of these are novel concepts, but it’s the remembering to do them that is so important to the process. At two weeks, I did this on a macro scale, but these tips work for the shorter terms, too.

  1. Stop what you’re doing. This is obviously the easiest step, as you may be too stuck to continue anyway. Walk away from what you’ve been doing and forget about it. When studying, I’ve been told that tking a break every twenty or thirty minutes aids retention. This is the same concept.
  2. Do something else. For me, I found that “do something else” needed to be translated as “break your routine.” Writing (and other projects) may be enjoyable, but the repetitive nature of them doesn’t lend itself to getting a fresh outlook. In my case, I took a two-day trip to see a friend I haven’t seen in months. Spending time with her family gave me a fresh perspective and broke the routine that had stymied my efforts for so many days.
  3. Do nothing. I took Amtrak to see my best friend. It’s cheaper than driving, and it allowed me time to sit, look out the window, and take in new stimuli. After a little while, I was catching up on projects, thinking about possible topics to write about, and taking notes about new projects I’d like to start.
  4. Allow yourself to continue doing nothing. By all means, take notes on the ideas that come your way. Get inspired and don’t let the moment pass. But as soon as it does pass, go back to the first three steps and start the process over. Don’t push yourself to go back to those projects that don’t come naturally, or you’ll get stuck again.
  5. Set a time to get back to the routine. For some projects, you’ll be raring to pick up where you left off.  Others won’t be so simple, and you’ll dread beginning again. Still, set a time when you get back to start over and see where the fresh outlook takes you.

These steps obviously aren’t foolproof–or at least aren’t a catch-all for every situation–but they do serve as a good reminder that even fifteen minutes away can get you back on track. If you’ve tried this, leave a comment and let me know how it went for you.

Online reviews in the age of Glut

This week’s On the Media had a feature on the vast number of fake reviews. As it happens, a recent study showed that while many are paid, the majority of fake reviews are unpaid—and are often written by people who have never used the product. As unlikely as that sounds, this study found that one in 15 reviews are fake reviews written by these non-consumers of whatever they’re reviewing…and they tend to be negative.

I thought about my own habits when reading reviews. I tend to research a product (or location—I use online reviews most when traveling) by scanning reviews for these negatives, in part because I’ve been wary of fake positive reviews. If there are as many or more negative fakes as positives, my assumption hasn’t gained me any research ground.

Couple that with the ubiquity of review and recommendation mechanisms on the web these days—sites like TripAdvisor, Amazon Reviews, Yelp, and the development of social search on Google and Bing—and it seems fruitless to consult reviews at all. Is it better to pinch your nose and dive in?Woman snorkeling

Two of my perennial favorite reads are Glut: Mastering Information Through the Ages by Alex Wright and Everything is Miscellaneous: the Power of the New Digital Disorder by David Weinberger. Both explore the drift away from experts’ hierarchical organization to what Weinberger refers to as putting one leaf on as many branches as possible (in other words, the evolution of metadata and tagging). With so much information able to be combined into different reports, it should be easier to find the answers you’re looking for among these reviews…shouldn’t it?

What does one do with a glut of information and a knowledge that false information appears in both positive and negative reactions? My suggestions are just as good as anyone’s on this topic, but here are a few things to keep in mind to keep from feeling swallowed:

  • Keep the date in mind. Businesses go through changes in management, and products through new models. If all of the good or bad reviews are a few years ago, take note. The situation may have changed.
  • Strangers may not value what you do. Some people will leave a one-star review for a bad wine list, while I’m usually more concerned with the availability of vegetarian foods. Read the exceptionally good and exceptionally bad to see if it’s something you care about.
  • Compare networks. If Yelp steers you wrong but TripAdvisor is spot-on, try cross-referencing sites.

The extra information these sites provide can be valuable, if you can find a way to slog through them. If you have any tips, please leave a comment!