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Notes from the Technology Trenches - The Continued Need for Web Training

By Cindy Curling, Published on November 15, 2001

Cindy Curling is the Electronic Resources Librarian at Fried Frank Harris Shriver & Jacobson in Washington, D.C., a web committee member for the Law Librarian’s Society of Washington, D.C., and organizer of its Legal Research Training Focus Group.


The technology trenches have been ringing with the cries of frustrated Web searchers (and trainers who can’t get them to come to class). To help remind everyone that there is a better way, this month’s column addresses the continued need for training, specifically Web training. If you are a trainer, stay with me; I promise not to simply preach to the choir. I’ll also do my best to give you the ammunition you need to get your users to recognize that they still need training and to persuade your administrators that training needs support. 

All you administrators and end-users out there, listen up! If you’re skipping out on Web training because you are happy with your Google results, you are wasting boatloads of time and money. 

Using the Internet is Hard, It Just Looks Easy

Part of my job over the last couple of months has been the development and launch of two new training programs on Internet searching – one on advanced Internet searching with Google and another on the invisible Web. I also happened to spend lots of time over the last two weeks searching for up-to-the-minute news. News searching is something I do regularly, but in this case I had to search for information that was extremely current and changing moment by moment. The issue I was working on was administrative, so I also had to do my best to keep a lid on costs.

The news research and program planning I was doing had me thinking about several ideas that have turned into this column, but the gist of it was this: Here I am, a very experienced and competent searcher who teaches other people how to do online research as part of my job, and I’m thinking to myself, “This is HARD!” 

I know if it is difficult for me, it must also be tough for the average Jane. So why are people so resistant to training? 

Here’s the problem: a simple search using one or two terms or a phrase in any major search engine on the Web will usually get you to a general interest site on your topic. Why is that bad, you ask? It isn’t, sometimes. The difficulty is that when a user is successful with that kind of search, those results lead him to believe that that’s all there is to searching. Instead, he’s simply playing the odds. The Web is huge, and chances are that when you search for any term you’ll find some pages (usually many, many more than you could sift through) that match it. Are they pages chock full of relevant information? Maybe, but probably not.

Know Your Enemy - Ignorance

Basically, users don’t know what they don’t know. We librarians see frequent examples of users who are ill informed or just plain not paying attention. Their ignorance leads to huge amounts of wasted time and resources. That’s not limited to the Web, by any means, but it’s where some of the worst transgressions occur, ironically because it is perceived as a free resource. In the legal world, of course, time is money, and there lies the rub. 

One of the tactics I use in promoting my classes is to let people know about others who have been the victims of mistaken assumptions, or outdated information, or who just didn't know their tools very well. Often my users can see themselves in these stories and it sparks just enough worry to get them into class. As part of the research for this column, I put out a broad plea to business and law librarians on several discussion lists asking for their examples of user bloopers. I was amazed, and a little depressed, by the response -- let’s just say the volume was overwhelming. 

My request was for searching horror stories in general, but for the benefit of those trainers who would like fresh examples for their own sessions (and for the administrators who would like a better idea what’s happening in their offices) here are a few representative Web-searching items. The first is the most dramatic, and definitely gets the point across. The others, while not matters of life and death, are the ones users are most likely to identify with.

Many librarians responded to my request with the story of the June 2001 death of Ellen Roche, a volunteer in an asthma drug study at Johns Hopkins University. The researcher who conducted the study overlooked published information about the dangers of the drug that Roche inhaled during the experiment. His research, which was primarily Internet based, focused on valid sources, but missed warnings that the drug in question might cause lung damage. If he had used both the Internet and traditional print sources, Roche might not have died. For details on this story, see http://www.infotoday.com/newsbreaks/nb010806-1.htm. Thank you to Amelia Kassel for the article reference.

The lesson here:  thorough research still requires the use of a variety of formats. The Internet is one of many tools, not the only resource to check. 

Ok, this one isn’t strictly Web searching, but it is Web-based: Bob Berring recently spoke in DC on legal research training and mentioned an example that helps define other aspects of the problem. He had his students do full text searches for case law. One student using a major online fee-based tool on the Web did his search and came back with twenty cases. All the cases were fairly relevant and he was happy with the result, but the rest of the students came back with hundreds of cases. The difference? The student with twenty cases had been using a natural language search. The default result set for natural language searching with this particular service is 20 items. What he got wasn’t irrelevant, but it was certainly not exhaustive. 

Berring's points: A result is not the same as an answer, and it's very important to know how your tools work. 

A frequent trap for Internet searchers is the assumption that because something is in an electronic format, it must be current. Ideally, that’s the case, but if you’d like to test it, try searching for the phone number of a friend who has recently moved in any major Web-based phone directory. In the legal world, Web copies of government publications such as statutes and codes are infamous among librarians for being out-of-date. A prime example from the legal world (thank you, Virginia Smith) is the Government Printing Office’s (GPO) version of the Code of Federal Regulations (CFR). The Web version is only as current as the print, which means that at best, any given title may be three months out of date, and at worst, may be more than a year out of date. Despite clear notations with dates of publication, people rely on Code sections as if they were current. Can you say malpractice? 

The lesson: evaluate your resource. Most people do not take the time to read the information provided to help them understand the resource they are using.

While the researcher at Hopkins wasn’t thorough enough, he did find some useful information in his Web search. Others are not so fortunate because they start out with the misconception that what they want must be available on the Web. They keep plugging away for far too long before they seek help when they can’t find what they need. We’re not talking about ten or twenty minutes of research here, we’re talking about hours. Most of the examples I received fell into this category. The follow-up was always one of two things: either the information was easier to access in print, or a better-informed searcher was able to find it with little difficulty. 

The lesson (and this is straight out of my beginning Internet class): when you are stuck after more than ten minutes, seek help from a librarian.

The Nature of the Web and General Search Tools All the examples above are based on faulty assumptions. If you don’t’ see yourself in those examples, you may feel that using single-term, general Web searches gets you everything you need. Consider the following:

The Ever-Changing Web  According to a July 2000 study 1, the Web is growing at a rate of 7.3 million documents per day. If you are already frustrated with the sheer volume of results from a simple Internet search, the size issue will only become more difficult as time passes. Would you like to learn how to take advantage of features of the tools you already use to narrow your searches so that you get smaller, but more relevant results? 

Not only are new materials constantly added, so are new tools. Heard of WiseNut 2? DayPop 3? RocketNews 4? Those are three major tools that debuted in the last quarter alone. 

As new tools appear, old tools falter. The tools you use may improve over time, or they may stagnate only to eventually disappear. Remember Magellan? It was a great search directory of reviewed sites, now long gone. HotBot is another favorite of mine. Once it was among the top few search engines by size, but it has not been for years. How can you tell if your favorite tool is still working comparatively well? 

Say you have a tool that works really well for you. Google, fine tool that it was to start with, has added so many new features over time that they seem to come out monthly. Do you know, for instance, that Google now indexes PowerPoint files? Google is only one of many search tools that work at improving all the time. 

Search Engine Limitations

How fond are you of that favorite? Do you ever use anything else? If not, do you realize how little overlap there is from one search tool to another? If you only use one search tool all the time, chances are you are missing good information. 

Then there’s the material you don’t see at all with a general Web search. Search tools mainly index static Web pages, but most of the information available through public Web sites is stored in databases that present information only when it is requested. Consequently, major general search tools miss some really great information. How much? Well, let’s use Google as our basis for comparison since it’s a current favorite. Google searches well over 1 billion pages. One study 5 estimates that the material not reached by a broad tool like Google amounted to about 500 billion pages. 

The same study also found that these invisible or deep Web resources tend to be much more focused and exhaustive than the consumer Web sites the search tools typically find. General references to your topic will surface in the results from a simple search, but a search of narrower, more targeted information would get you more relevant results.

The invisible Web also includes new sites, or sites which change frequently, such as the news sites that made me crazy over the last two weeks. Most search tools just don’t update their indexes with enough frequency to catch items less than a few weeks old. Other pages are missed because their creators haven’t submitted them to be indexed and no other sites link to them. Since the crawlers that collect pages to index rely on the interconnectedness of the Web to find new pages, they don’t see these sources.

That’s not the only limitation of Web crawlers. Many do not index the entire content of a page. Google, for instance, only indexes the first 110k of each page 6. Longer pages may mention your terms, but you may not see them.

Also, your result may not include some pages indexed by your search tool because it may limit the total possible number of results 7. Only so many system resources are allotted to any given search. If there are too many matches in a search engine index for your term, you may not see all of them.

Money and the Web

An issue becoming more prominent as the economy becomes tighter is how search tools will pay for themselves. Do you realize that the prominence of an item in your search result may have as much to do with a payment to the search tool as with its relevance to your query? That isn’t entirely a bad thing, but as a searcher, you should know how your search tools rank your results.

Some Web resources, especially those which have a print counterpart, already use a fee-based, subscription-type system to make enough money to keep running. More are shifting to this model all the time, and the one good aspect of this trend is that users better understand the direct consequence of inefficient searching when it includes an obvious price tag. Still, after watching users struggle with the intricacies of Lexis and Westlaw for many years, librarians know that even the knowledge that some information is very expensive isn’t enough to make everyone careful.

Help is Available

The good news: There is plenty of information out there at each search site and in the literature to help you cope with searching the Web. Individual tools let you search for your terms by using more complex combinations of concepts and special search syntax. Specialized tools let you look at resources just on your issue, or for only the most current information. Experience can help you determine when you should or should not use the Web for a particular task.

An overworked associate needs to be efficient, not frustrated. Doesn’t it make sense not to waste your client and firm resources spinning the Internet wheel of chance with single-termed, general searches? Instead, you could be searching much more precisely and as a bonus get time for the things you think are more important.

The bad news: That’s an awful lot of information for an otherwise busy person to keep up with. What can you do? Happily, there is a short cut. A great way to be sure you are current on the latest information about using the Web and to ensure that your research is thorough, accurate and efficient is to take the time to attend a Web class.

To quote Invisible Web search expert Gary Price from a recent article:

We need to do this "learning" much the same way we have always "learned" traditional databases and print resources. Think about how much focus information vendors like Factiva and Dialog place on training. Unfortunately, Web engine companies do not offer this kind of training, but the learning process remains crucial. 

If it isn’t possible for you to keep up with the Web on your own, find someone who does and take advantage of her expertise. Your librarian is, as usual, a great person to ask. 

If you have more tips or resources to add, please let me know.

Footnotes

1. Sizing the Internet, Cyveillance, July 2000, http://www.cyveillance.com/web/us/downloads/Sizing_the_Internet.pdf. <back to text>
2. Wisenut, the Google Killer? Nah... by Chris Sherman, SearchDay, September 5, 2001,  # 88. 
3. Daypop Ba Du Ba Dop by Tara Calishain, ResearchBuzz, 9/4/2001, http://www.researchbuzz.com/news/2001/aug30sep501.html, and DayPop Adds New Features by Tara Calishain, ResearchBuzz, 9/17/2001 http://www.researchbuzz.com/news/2001/sept13sept1901.html.
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4. Web Search Tip of the Day: RocketNews Search, Simple and Snappy by Kevin Elliott, Web Search, October 25 2001, http://websearch.about.com/library/searchtips/bltotd011025.htm
5. The Deep Web: Surfacing Hidden Value by Michael K. Bergman, Journal of Electronic Publishing, July, 2001, http://www.press.umich.edu/jep/07-01/bergman.html#fn5a
6. See Ten Things to Know about Google from Web Search Engines FAQS: Questions, Answers, and Issues by Gary Price, Searcher October, 2001, http://www.infotoday.com/searcher/oct01/price.htm
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7. See Maximum Number Of Visible Hits from The Almost Invisible Web, Chris Sherman and Gary Price, http://websearch.about.com/library/weekly/aa091800a.htm.

Tips for Trainers

The challenge for librarians is to make users aware of all of the above, to persuade them that training is still a good idea, and to get support from our institutions so that we have the time and resources necessary to keep our users educated. 

If you have programming available, but people are not attending sessions, some traditional library marketing “quick fixes” may help:

· Promote your programs creatively. 
· Make responding and attending as easy as possible.
· Send reminders.
· Follow up with people who express interest, but are unable to attend. Offer alternatives.
· Charge admission where applicable (people will be more likely to invest time if they've already invested money).
· Arrange CLE credit where possible.
· Earn repeat business. When you do a good job, word of mouth will be your best advertising. 

If the fixes above are not getting you the attendance you want, you may need more support from your administration. You’ll need time, space and instructors for training. You’ll also need to have a culture in which it is understood that training is a necessity and where there may be some negative consequence, however minimal, for those who do not attend. Marketing only goes so far. If an associate is working with a partner and that partner is dismissive of the need for training, the associate will learn by example. To get material and cultural support, focus on the people in your institution whose opinion on training matters will carry weight. 

Two Possible Strategies:

Dust off your presentation skills and build a case for training support. 

· Research articles citing the need for training in our ever-changing, technology-driven environment. Some good examples are referenced within this article to get you started. Pull out the quotes with the most punch and give them extra emphasis.

· Research the statistics. What’s the effect of extra training on the firm’s expenses? Will training significantly improve efficiency and, therefore, the bottom line? 

· Survey your users to find out what training they need. Specific questions about user habits often point to weak research skills and make a very telling argument.

Combine the results of your efforts, and highlight the items that show how training can help. Then, polish your presentation and brave the lion’s den, or persuade someone whose voice carries weight to do so on your behalf.

Another option is to make training so ever-present that it cannot be ignored.

· Be more proactive. If Mohammed will not go to the mountain, bring the mountain to his next meeting. Get yourself on the department meeting agendas, give them a taste of what they’re missing and offer to do more.

· Send out a regular newsletter with truly valuable tips, the kind that will shock them with usefulness and let them see the gaps in their knowledge. There is a tendency among newsletter writers everywhere to fill space with fluff. Keep in mind that the materials you bother to read probably have enough humor and general interest to get your attention, but what keeps you reading is the informative content. 

· Take advantage of elevator time and other incidental opportunities to promote training and your expertise. If you’ve been thinking about writing an article, do so. The better reputation you have, the more respected you will be as an expert, and the more likely you will be to get an ear when you need it.