Getting the horse to drink : how to encourage efficient search behaviour

In Theory

Physicist James Clarage (3 April 2010, New Scientist,  p 20-21) crunched the numbers for Google’s data centre servers, and estimated that Google uses an average of 100 watt/hours per search – the same as turning on a 100-watt globe for an hour.

In Practice

This was on my mind as I watched a bright teenager use Google to search for specific information.  I selected an intersecting set of terms, in a different order, searched within results, and chose to investigate different items from the results list.  I found a fitting item in about half the time the teenager had taken to find a related but not sufficient item.

What were the key differences in our approaches?  How had I come to be able to do this, when I use the system much less?  How can I teach this skill?

Well, it’s not intelligence:  this teenager is seriously gifted.  And I suspect it’s not basic analytic training: ve* has had “learning opportunities” for all the steps I take.  I think it is a combination of practice and motivation.

My practice came from pre-web studies (efficient use of Dewey filing and of published collections of abstracts, with manual note taking), where my motivation to use my analytic skills was to save time and avoid writing.

It’s not just in selecting the search terms to match probable data nodes: it includes applying the search purpose in the examination of the results.  I know the mind-feel of it: I have several brain sub-systems, each seeking different things from the material I read, and higher systems adding positive or negative markers given these sub-system results.  Still higher sub-systems weigh the markers, and list those to remove, duplicates, and those to investigate.  The full conscious attention may read two pages of results before going back half-way down the first page to check one link.

I have vague memories of taking notes in Undergraduate searches, doing the sub-routines consciously.  Now, the sub-systems do it, and it takes a strange mental twist for me to catch them at it.

What can we do?

Children and young adults may feel they “have too much to do”, yet the online environment destroys the sense of urgency.   Also,   cut-and-paste note taking removes the aching fingers which motivated copying only central information.  What will motivate students to explore ways of thinking about the probable patterns of results from particular terms and the order in which they are used – or not used?  What will motivate them to exclude common but irrelevant areas from the result, and to seek patterns within the results to investigate fewer (but more useful) elements of the apparently relevant results?

That is where the idea of Google’s electricity bill comes in:  a great deal of effort has gone into developing the “reduce. reuse, recycle” mindset for children.  So, apply it to teaching computer use:


Consider the global data patterns, and reduce the number of searches by careful selection of terms – keep a log of the number of searches and the useful results per page of each search.  Look at the patterns of useful searches, and try to figure out what made the difference.

Find patterns within the results, and use “search within search results” to winnow for useful data

Reuse: Save rich search results for re-examination – especially if they relate to a central area of study.

Recycle: Where “related searches” are listed, check for what you want to know (not just the terms you thought of) and for useful ideas.

Every time we send a command down the tubes, we burn electricity and shorten the life of circuits.  How many commands did you waste today?

*sentient neuter (he, she, ve, it;  his, her, ves, its; him, her, ver, it).


One Response to “Getting the horse to drink : how to encourage efficient search behaviour”

  1. Mark Pegrum Says:

    I love this Reduce – Reuse – Recycle approach. It’s highly original and could be valuable on more than one count, as you point out …

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