Reading Time: 4 minutes

Daniel Russell was for over ten years the head of search at Google, so a book by him about search raises considerable expectations. His book is written for the common reader, I accept, but it was a bit of a shock to realise that I am more of a fossil than a common reader, since I know what an encyclopedia is:

For readers on the younger side, an encyclopedia was a huge set of books with many, many articles on different topics, written by experts … The better encyclopedias had little hints – links really – to other articles in the encyclopedia … Now, of course, you’d just click on the link to go read the other articles instantly. [p303, footnote]

Sounds as if I was born in the Stone Age … but don’t we still have encyclopedias? Even though he has a PhD, Russell writes in a naïve style with emphasised words in CAPITAL LETTERS, and with mentions of “other folk”. He presents himself as an ordinary guy, who happens to work with search for a living. And a search system like Google, is not really understood by everyone: “it’s as though we’ve all been given a Steinway, but we only know ‘Chopsticks’”. For Russell, in the world of search, everything is rosy, unlike those “encyclopedias of yore” [p5]. Not for Russell the intricacies (or even much of an explanation) of Boolean search. It’s only in a footnote that  you learn that Google uses only OR of the Boolean operators AND, NOT, OR, although it is explained that Google uses a minus sign in place of NOT, e.g. -Houston means “NOT Houston”.

That title, “The Joy of Search”, is not ironic. Searching really is fun for this author, and you feel the successful search is the goal, rather than understanding what has been found: “through online search tools, the world is your information oyster, at your disposal twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week”. When you quote from a book, such as Boswell’s Life of Johnson, there is only one edition, and you don’t need to specify which edition (and the reference is to the whole book, not to a chapter or page).

The meat of the book is 16 case studies of search, and how to solve them. These include some classic problems in information retrieval, such as “Is Abyssinia the same as Eritrea? (chapter 16), and including some coverage of other information sources such as Wikipedia (a fascinating chapter on why you would want to look up the Italian Wikipedia). The final chapter summarises everything learned, so let’s start there. Russell’s tips for being a great researcher are (chapter 19):

  1. Figure out what the question really is
  2. Understand the problems, questions and areas of uncertainty and doubt
  3. Contextualise the question
  4. Select the right questions
  5. Already know a bunch of stuff.  (“the more you know about a topic, the more you can do research in it”)
  6. Understand coverage and its limitations
  7. Understand how search interfaces work
  8. Read boldly yet carefully
  9. Check your work (and one good tip, try to find a different answer)
  10. Validate the resources you find and use
  11. Know when to stop searching

On reflection, I think these are some of the most useless recommendations for search I have ever seen. “Know when to stop searching” sounds like the industry trade association for gambling adding “Know when to stop” at the end of adverts for online betting stores. And “already know a bunch of stuff” is a lot of help to a 12-year-old who wants to learn more about Ancient Egypt.

As if the tips for searching weren’t bad enough, Russell follows it with seven “Attitudes of Great Researchers” (Russell’s list is a hotchpotch of nouns, phrases and adjectives, but I’ll transcribe them as they appear):

  1. Resilience
  2. Persistent
  3. Curious
  4. Abstract thinkers
  5. Learn from mistakes while searching
  6. Constantly learn about the world (“find a way to make learning a part of your daily routine”)
  7. Focus

“Learning from mistakes while searching” is like telling users to get their searches correct. “Curiosity”, one of his favourite terms, is the last thing you need when you search for something on YouTube.

Russell’s last chapter is about the future of online search, and he is correct that research skills will continue to be useful. Anyone who is familiar with generative AI (which of course arrived a few years after this book) will have noticed that creating a good prompt is a very similar exercise to creating a good Google search: if you ask the right questions, you get better answers. “What are the best games for my children’s party” is going to give you less useful information than asking “What are the best games for my children’s party of five six-year-olds who will be outdoors in the summer for an hour”. Russell’s book is now firmly out of date in that discovery has changed forever in light of generative AI. Nonetheless, his book is full of fascinating insights, even if they are not the ones he highlights. For example, Russell points out that the search

Is the average length of an octopus 25 inches?

is an example of confirmation bias, since such a search will prioritize results that have the length of an octopus as 25 inches.

I fear that Russell’s book is a classic example of a noble attempt at pedagogy that concentrates on the techniques of searching at the expense of the content beneath it. This is exemplified in Russell’s anecdote about what birds eat. Russell discovers that some penguins eat krill, while others eat fish, and some, remarkably, eat stones. On discovering this, Russell asks us to think about birds in general. “Do other types of birds also swallow stones as they eat? And in a footnote he states “Surprisingly, yes they do!” My preference would be to ask not which birds eat stones, but why do any birds eat stones?