There was big news in the world of web search over the past week. Google announced new features and the new search tool, Wolfram Alpha, launched. After checking out what's new, I've been thinking a lot about the impact of this search news, particularly as it relates to teens and libraries.
Google's new features should help teens use the service more successfully. Wolfram Alpha could be helpful, but then again, it might not. I'm very curious to find out what teens have to say about how it works and what it does.
For librarians, asking teens to try out the tools and provide feedback could be really useful as a way to learn about what teens think about the specific tools, but also as a way to learn about teen information seeking behaviors. For example, one of the new features at Google is what's called the Wonder Wheel. (To access the Wonder Wheel, or any of Google's new search options, from the results screen click on the "Show options" link at the top of the page. You will then see a list of options on the left of the screen that looks like what's shown to the left of this paragraph.)
Selecting the Wonder Wheel in Google's search options panel, generates a 3 column search screen. The middle column shows a web (or wheel in Google's terminology) of related search queries. The right column shows the results for the current search selected in the Wonder Wheel view. Click on any phrase in the wheel view and the search results change. And while the results and wheel change, the original wheel is still visible in a lower part of the screen. (See the image below for a view of the middle & right columns for a wonder wheel search on Twilight.)
While librarians have versions of this wheel in catalog and database products, its inclusion in Google search should make searching easier for those who like to visually see connections between ideas. Will teens agree? Are my (and others) assumptions that visual search tools like this make results more understandable to searchers? Will teens come to use the Wonder Wheel regularly? It would be great to ask teens and find out what they have to say.
When it comes to Wolfram Alpha, I keep thinking that a librarian's ready reference shelf is now available on the web all in one place. On Twitter people are saying that Wolfram Alpha is a "homework machine" because results are from constrained sources with specific answers. Will teens agree that it's a "homework machine?"
Perhaps the best way to think about Wolfram Alpha is to focus on the fact that the site generates factual answers to queries. For example, type in To Kill a Mockingbird and the results provide information on the book including author, date of publication, and sales. (There is also a link to information about the movie of the same title.) Or type in musical notes and you can see the notation for those notes, learn about the differences between the notes, and even hear them played.
Will teens get drawn in by some of the more unusual searches that can be preformed with Wolfram Alpha? For example, what if teens test their own name against that of a friend. Type in two names in the search box and find out the number of people that have each name, see a graph that shows the age break-down of those with that name, and see a graph that shows the popularity of each name over the years. Or, perhaps teens will be drawn in by the sense of humor of the Wolfram Alpha developers and hunt down the Easter Eggs integrated into the site. (For example, type in "How many roads must a man walk down before you can call him a man?" and see what the results are.) Will these searches help teens understand how search works and help librarians understand what makes searching meaningful to teens?
It's a little early to know the answers to my questions, but it's not too early to ask teens their opinions about these tools. Any time we talk with teens about how they think about search and what draws them into the search process, the more successful we can then be in supporting teen research needs.