When Search Engines Become Answer Engines

A major change over the years has been a declining emphasis on using search to identify good sites as such. Rather than hunt for sites to explore and use in depth, users now hunt for specific answers. The Web as a whole has thus become one agglomerated resource for people who use search engines to dredge up specific pages related to specific needs, without caring which sites supply the pages.

Search engines have essentially become answer engines. Their job is no longer resource discovery, but rather to answer users’ questions. —Jakob NielsenWhen Search Engines Become Answer Engines (Alertbox)

This trend has important ramifications for the kind of “find the answer” research scavenger hunts that were an important part of the way I learned how to use the library, in the days before the WWW. My instructors wanted me to use an index to find a good source, then read that source to find the answer.

But the best-quality academic information is typically not well-indexed by Google, since most of it is kept behind a subscription firewall, with tuition fees permitting students open access to those services subscribed to by their school’s library.

There are many peer-reviewed academic journals that do publish their full text online, but unless those sites have blogging communities attached to them (cf. Kairos and KairosNews), an academic journal website is typically updated so infrequently that search engines probably don’t spider them very often. Thus, the freshest, best info is often going to be the hardest to find, if your starting point is a general-access search engine.