Search evolution for ease and speed: A call to action for what’s been lost

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Journal of Librarianship and Information Science







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In recent years, leading website search engines have abandoned vital search features supporting complex information needs, evolving instead for the marketplace and for users seeking speedy answers to easy questions. The consequences are troubling, for researchers and for information science educators, with concerns ranging from the very relevance of search results and the unknowing of what is missing, to the novice searcher’s waning ability to frame potent queries and to learn ways to refine results. We report on a grounded theory study of search experiences of information professionals and graduate students (n = 20) that contributes a holistic understanding of web searching, using its findings both to frame what is lacking in the design evolution of search engines for complex information needs and to outline a way forward. One goal of the study was to evaluate an established model of web searching, called Net Lenses, a theoretical framework shown to be highly relevant during the study’s grounded theory secondary literature review. The original Net Lenses research used phenomenography to identify variation in the web search experiences of university students (n = 41), evidencing four categories according to the characteristics of searcher awareness, approach to learning, response to obstacles and search outcomes. This study validated the model and led to an expanded version, Net Lenses 2.0, with five categories of search experience, reflecting the complex information needs of more advanced searchers. This resultant Net Lenses 2.0 model is discussed with its implications for search engine design, for advanced searchers and also for learning-to-search modes, much needed by searchers seeking to develop their abilities. The study’s implications coalesce in a call to action for more inclusive search interface design, and an agenda is put forth for how information researchers, educators and literacy advocates can move forward in their intersecting domains.


Complex search, information behaviour, information needs, search engines, search interface design, threshold concepts