In the federated search industry there’s lots of Google bashing. I do it. You’ve probably heard the proclamation that serious researchers would never use Google to find serious scholarly information, that the good stuff lives in the deep web, the part of the web that web crawlers like Google can’t access. And, you’ve probably heard that many federated search applications are too difficult to use and that many users prefer Google because you can’t get simpler than Google. I believe that the argument of which search paradigm is better misses an important point, that researchers, students, and the public aren’t looking for just documents.
Permit me to be philosophical for a moment. We humans engage in activities for a number of reasons. Maybe we want to learn something, or better ourselves, or solve a problem, or simply enjoy ourselves. People use search applications, federated or otherwise, for all of these reasons and more. Marketing people talk about features vs. benefits. It is the benefits that people ultimately want; hopefully product features make it easy for customers to realize a vendor’s benefits.
Consider why a researcher uses a search application. Yes, he is looking for relevant documents. But, he has other reasons. Perhaps he is trying to solve a problem. He likely wants to save time while conducting research. He doesn’t want to have to sift through too many irrelevant results. He wants to avoid missing relevant content. Ideally, he wants to enjoy the search experience and feel productive at the same time. While a federated search application will likely provide the researcher with more of the experience he is looking for, I think that there are deeper reasons people use search applications and that federated search is merely a foundation for a much more profound search experience that is in its frequency.
Putting on my philosopher’s cap again, I posit that, search engines aside, we are all seekers. We all want to be happy, to avoid pain and suffering, to better ourselves, to have fulfilling relationships, and more. I believe that the search environment of the future will address these deep desires. I also believe that future search experiences will bring people together because we humans are social creature who, to a great extent, crave connection with other humans. While there are competitive forces in the market that limit interaction with our competitors, these forces also encourage collaboration with those who would further our goals.
The question of whether Google or your favorite federated search application is better is, in my judgment, not the right question to be asking. The more fruitful question is, “How can my customers best meet their goals and their deeper needs?” From this perspective, we need to look no further than the emerging Web 2.0, for ideas about what the evolution of federated search might look like. Interaction, community, membership sites, mutual support, and collaboration are key elements of Web 2.0. Study groups exist among students because students benefit from the interaction, the seeing of new perspectives, and from the support and knowledge of their peers. Scientists collaborate with one another to gain these study group benefits.
The influence of Web 2.0 will push the federated search industry to evolve toward greater levels of interaction. Access to content will still be important. Google will continue to provide facts and figures. Federated search will provide access to the scholarly content that Google can’t access. And, users of both search paradigms will come together through virtual study groups and demonstrate that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.
Tags: federated search