Berrypicking Your Way through the Web

First published July 3, 2008 in Mediapost’s Search Insider

In the last three columns, I explored the fundamentals of humans seeking information. To refresh your memory, the purpose of this series is to explore the importance of branding on the search page. Taking several steps back to begin my run at this topic (and risking a series that is “long and extremely wind baggy,” in the words of one reader), we’re now starting to get at some of the important concepts to understand how we interact with a search results page.

Bates and Berrypicking

In 1989, Marcia Bates took a fresh look   at the classic model of information retrieval that had dominated for the previous 25 years. The model was a fairly straight equation, with on one side a collection of documents and how the contents of those documents were represented, and the seeker’s information need and the query they constructed to express that need on the other side. In the middle was the desired outcome, the match of query and document representation. Bates found this admirably simple equation didn’t hold up too well in real-world search situations, especially given the advances in information technology.

The problem with the classic model was that it assumed that the successful search for information was a relatively static event, where one search and retrieval strategy took you eventually to the desired information. Even if you took into account feedback and iterative query refinement, it still looked at the process as a continual and linear one, with incremental progress towards a constant goal. In looking at actual behavior, Bates found that the process was more complex. As we pursued the information we thought we wanted, she found the path was less a straight line and more a looping and meandering path. In fact, it reminded her of picking huckleberries, hence the title of her theory, berrypicking.

Meandering through the Web

Bates found that as we start down the path to the information we seek, we pick up bits of information a little at a time, like picking berries. What’s more, as we pick the berries, we may head off in different directions depending on the information we gather. We follow the berries to more promising clusters of berries, or “patches.” We don’t just refine our queries, we change search and retrieval strategies, the places where we think we’ll find information (our “patches”) and, in the more extreme cases, our ultimate destination. Search is an evolving behavior, not a linear one.

Bates looked at 6 different strategies that academics use to search for information: footnote chasing (backwards chaining from articles of reference, tracking back footnotes); citation searching (forward chaining, using a citation index to jump forward); journal run (using authoritative journals on a subject and going through the entire run); area scanning (using the physical location of a subject in a library on the assumption that relevant materials will be in the same location); abstracting and indexing searches (using organized bibliographies and indexes, usually arranged by subject area); and author searching. At the time of her paper (1989), Web search was still unknown. The first search engine (Archie) would be created in 1990 at McGill University. But as you look at the six methods outlined, it’s clear that Web search lets you do any and all of them.

The Web: The Ultimate Berry Patch

Bates theorized that berrypicking would play out in different environments and you would change strategies as you went from environment to environment. The timeline could be days, weeks or even months. But with the Web and search, you could go from strategy to strategy in seconds, berrypicking your way through the Web. What’s more, you could be diverted from your original path through a serendipitous display of information that catches your attention. For example, you could be footnote chasing (i.e., the source link for a snippet of a review on one page) which leads you to launch a search for other reviews. There you see results for a magazine dedicated to the topic (an example of journal run), a link for other consumer reviews (citation searching) and a book title written by an authority on the subject (author searching). You’ve just used all six of the strategies outlined by Bates in one session, as you used abstracting and indexing (this is ultimately what a search engine is) and area scanning (in this case the physical collocation is defined by the search page real estate).

When it comes to the impact of branding on search, it’s important to understand Bate’s berrypicking model. Any search result could represent a “berry” that could lead us to an entirely new patch. Our search path could evolve in a totally new direction based on what we pick from a page. We can be introduced to brands or have them reinforced as we berrypick our way along.

In the next column, we’ll continue to redefine information retrieval by looking at the Information Foraging theory.

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