- The Joy of Search: A Google Insider's Guide to Going beyond the Basics by Daniel M. Russell
by Daniel M. Russell
CAMBRIDGE, MA: MIT PRESS, 2019. 336 PP. (HARDCOVER), $29.95
This is not a book of facts, scientific knowledge, or scientific methods. Neither is it a set of instructions or principles dictating how to conduct web searches. Instead, The Joy of Search is a lively collection of snapshots from Dan Russell's daily search practice and observations. Holding the title of Senior Research Scientist for Search Quality and User Happiness at Google for about thirteen years, Russell tells his search anecdotes from a user's perspective in the real-life setting just like everyone else's. Seventeen of the twenty chapters in the book are individual search stories in response to some clearly stated research questions. What Russell has done is document the path of each search he completed. By unfolding these usually invisible processes happening in our computing devices every day, Russell shows readers that search techniques could be much more than they have thought.
Each of the seventeen scenarios in The Joy of Search demonstrates that searching for online resources can be quotidian, entertaining, stimulating or scholastic, deliberate, and skillful. Searching can begin with a daily contingency: when your kid comes home with a half-chewed wildflower in her mouth, would you wonder if the plant is poisonous? Search for it online while you wait for a response from Poison Control. This query could evolve into a serendipitous discovery. When Russell came across a familiar name on a gravestone in Halifax, Nova Scotia, a chain of online searches helped him flesh out the whole epic history behind it. These search threads were driven by some real-life events or a vague idea and then driven by curiosity. After reading through each of the seventeen search stories, accompanied by rich pictures and details, I watched how Russell tweaked his search terms, looked around at different information sources, carefully examined and validated each new concept and resource he found, and then made judgments based on his knowledge and experience in every iterative round of search. Occasionally Russell takes detours when a search does not yield straightforward results, but generally each search action leads to a new layer of sense-making and understanding in answering the initial research question.
From these seemingly commonsense but also individually peculiar practices you can learn very concrete tips, such as search operators and how to zigzag across diverse online [End Page 194] search tools from Google, Wikipedia, and multimodal or domain-specific sources, to reach your answer. Russell aims to illustrate each search case as a research process: individuals start with a question; then through the course of their research they run into new questions or have to work around some ostensible roadblocks; then they find alternative paths. The progression of research is never linear or barrier-free.
In Russell's image, great researchers are "persistently resilient" (283) and always able to move beyond mistakes and setbacks. They are cogent and able to assess their progress, knowing exactly where to start and how to proceed, and they can always tell where they are and what still remains uncertain at any point. They know their research so well that they have good instincts for the emerging, subtle inconsistency or interestingness that is worth chasing. They understand their search toolkits from the interface to the inner workings so that they can frame their queries to match the best the technology can achieve. They know that they are going to reap from the search engines raw, decontextualized fragments of knowledge, so they zoom in and out, checking details, sources, and backdrops to weave pieces into a valid picture.
After all, online search is just one class of research activities, though it is indispensable. In Russell's personal examples, he describes how he extended his research footprints to the offline world, where he reached out to experts in the Tongva language, went outdoors and into a field to examine a...