Search Results, Relevance, and Overload

If you’ve ever used library databases to do research or stock photo sites to search for images, you know the feeling. Overwhelmed by too many search results or underwhelmed by zero search results or just a couple options.

Part of the challenge, of course, is constructing an effective search query. But honestly, sometimes too many results is as much an issue as too few.

Add to the mix one interesting point raised by Meredith Farkas in this wonderful post “What do they really need?” talking about WorldCat Local. If students are searching for scholarly sources when writing research papers and the search results include everything plus the kitchen sink, this can add more confusion by presenting too many options of varying quality and relevance.

If art directors are looking for an image of a palm tree wrapped in holiday lights and they find every kind of tree in the world, their patience will be tested. No one has time for too many choices.

Students and researchers need the ability to limit searches to scholarly sources and creative professionals often need to sort by licensing models like royalty free versus rights managed.

I know that whether I am searching for research sources or for images, I am not as picky about the results as long as I have an appropriate amount from which to generate an idea, address a research question or satisfy a creative brief. I don’t care which article about image retrieval or which palm tree, as long as a few are suitable.

This is exactly the point. Search, no matter the system, needs to account for not only relevance, but managing the types of returns and the amount as well as offering sensible options for aggregating and discriminating. People don’t need 87 flavors of Cheerios nor do they need 87 palm trees or scholarly articles. They need about 23 of the correct type of asset.

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