Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Is Google Your New Best Research Friend? A Cautionary Tale About Results

For folks who’ve discovered Google as their new best friend for research, here’s something to keep in mind.

It seems that Google searches sometimes return “interesting” results, to put it mildly. Here’s an example of what can happen if you rely too much on simply what appears on your computer screen as the Google search return.

This afternoon, I received an email from a librarian/archivist in a major institution inquiring about a book he thought he had found on our online book catalogue. Seems he had done a Google search and turned up what appeared to be a real rarity.

Before I share the full details, there’s something important to remember about search engines and what they choose to show you. 

You must remember that Google does a great job of returning a “hit” on your primary searched-for item, but often adds some “strings” of additional data found on the same page if your search has been broadened by the use of some secondary and/or tertiary terms. (And all along you thought you were adding these terms to LIMIT the results!) This is not, in itself, a “bad” thing, but if you don’t know that it’s happening, you can wander down a search engine’s primrose path to researcher’s perdition.

Now…back to my story….

Here’s what happened to the librarian in question and how it could also happen to you if you’re not paying close attention. 

Let’s say you do a Google search for the book title “Hippocrates In A Red Vest” because you want to see if there’s an author-signed copy out there.  Suppose you mistakenly mis-remember the publisher as Sage Books, a major publisher of Western titles.  You search for the book title  - plus the words “author-signedAND plus the name of the Colorado publisher “Sage” and get a search return that looks like this:

Books About the Rocky Mountains States
612129 Hippocrates in a Red Vest: The Biography of a Frontier Doctor, ... Published by Sage Books, Denver, 1961. 1st edition. Author signed. ...

What you see above is the actual Google search result.  It looks very much like a book in a book dealer catalogue (ours, in this case), with what appears to be the book’s bibliographic description.  It has exactly the “right” look: there is a catalogue number,  a title, some bibliographic description, etc. 

To the casual searcher – say, perhaps, someone compiling a “quickie” bibliography for a term paper or for talk handout, it looks for all the world like the book was published in 1961 AND that we have the author signed 1961 edition for sale.

Would that it were so, since the book was actually published in 1973 by another publisher altogether.   Were we to have a book published a decade before the author actually wrote and published it, we’d have a really valuable collector’s item. 

Not quite as valuable as next week’s newspaper, which might permit us to do some fancy stock picking, but a valuable rarity nonetheless.

So, what really happened?

Google found the searched-for book and then dropped down the page to a book six places below (Marshall Sprague’s Newport in the Rockies) which actually WAS published by Sage books in 1961 and which actually IS an author-signed copy. 

The Google search return simply concatenated the two data strings and separated them by three dots. Of course, you’ll only learn that by reviewing all the books on the page.

You can see for yourself here.  The specific books chosen by Google for the search result are the 7th and 13th entries on the page.  There is no 1961 edition because the book had not been written yet.

Now, in the off-chance you actually want to know more about the Western physician who was called “Hippocrates in a red vest” (Martin Beshoar, a Pennsylvania-born physician who served in both the Confederate and Union armies), you may want to consult the Beshoar Family Papers in the Denver Public Library.  The papers were donated by Martin Beshoar’s grandson Barron B. Beshoar, who wrote and published Hippocrates In A Red Vest in 1973.  The papers include Dr. Beshoar’s 1864-1866 medical records from Benton Barracks and Fort Kearny and a number of other genealogically significant goodies. Beshoar practiced medicine in Trinidad, Colorado after the Civil War.

Google searches are great, especially if you actually click through to see what being presented as a search return…Beware of concatenated results!

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