Foraging for Information with Search

First published July 10, 2008 in Mediapost’s Search Insider

In my last column, we looked at berrypicking as an analogy for gathering information. The theory was put forward in 1989 by Marcia Bates. Then, in 1995, two researchers found even more inherent behaviors demonstrated in the way we seek information. It turns out that we may literally hunt for information.

The Genetic Case for Searching

We didn’t come equipped with an inherent strategy to pull information from a Web search results page. There is no genetic coding specific to Google. But as two researchers at Xerox’s PARC research facility, Peter Pirolli and Stuart Card, really started to explore how humans navigated online environments looking for information in 1995, they found something fascinating. They found that the way we seek information online is very similar to an activity that is as old as evolution itself: the hunt for food. Pirolli and Card called this the information foraging theory.

The basic principle behind information foraging is not so much about gathering the maximum amount of information, but rather in maximizing our time and efforts in pursuit of the right information. This goes to the human knack for conserving our resources in pursuit of our objectives.

The Easiest Route to Information

We must remember that any interaction with a search engine is part of a much broader range of activity that will hopefully result in achieving a large objective that is aligned with a human drive: learning, bonding, acquiring or defending (Nohria/Lawrence ). We take these macro objectives and break them up into distinct tasks and allocate resources against those tasks based on the expected usefulness of the outcome. This is where the food-gathering analogy provides some useful perspective.

We eat food to survive. Food is the fuel that powers our activities. In the stripped-down logic of evolutionary survival, it doesn’t make sense to expend more energy in the pursuit of food than the food itself contains. We would starve and die. So we have become remarkably effective at finding food in the easiest way possible. The big objective of the pursuit of food and survival is broken down into discrete tasks or actions, and we instinctively determine how much time and effort to spend on each of these tasks or actions depending on how much closer it will get us to the objective: our next meal. There is a cascading series of risk/reward decisions and mental trade offs happening below the level of our rational awareness. Our evolutionary programs play themselves out subconsciously.

Born Foragers

While seeking information is a more abstract concept than finding food, Pirolli and Card argue that the same inherent skills are used, including the same trade-off decisions. In evolutionary terms, our information-seeking skills are an adaptation of our food-gathering skills. Each time we seek information, we “hunt” for it and make decisions about how much cognitive energy we want to expend in the pursuit and the optimum strategy for gathering the information. We forage for information.

This explains much of the typical behavior we see with online properties, especially search. We quickly seek and filter through information, using our heuristic guidelines and trade-offs.

And when we look at our use of search engines, there are two important concepts put forward by Pirolli and Card that must be considered: the importance of information patches and diets.

The Right Patch and The Right Diet

As we seek information, the same as seeking food, we will spend our time where the promise of successful pursuit is the greatest, based on clues or telltale hints we encounter. We look for the best information “patch,” which is determined by information “scent,” the smell of informational relevance. The greater the scent, the greater the promise of an abundant information patch.

Search engines give us the ability to create our own patches, somewhat like a spider spinning a web to catch prey. We see what we catch based on the scent, and if we don’t like what we see, we quickly spin another web with another query. There is almost no effort expended in the process, so we have little patience if we’re not presented with adequate scent. This is why so much time is spent scanning the top of the page. I call it the area of greatest promise, that tiny yet critical patch of real estate in the extreme upper left corner of the search page, where we expect the strongest scent, figuratively. We judge the value of the whole patch based on what we see in the first few words in the first few listings on the page. If we don’t find strong scent, we start questioning the value of the patch.

But we also have to make a determination of which information we include in our diet. Remember, it makes no evolutionary sense (assuming we’re using the same mechanisms we use for foraging food) to expend energy pursing food that doesn’t return an equal or greater return on our investment. So we will quickly filter out low-quality information. In fact, if we think a patch contains only low-quality information, we’ll exclude it from our diet.

Search has been remarkably successful in becoming the preferred “patch” for a diverse set of information needs, but it still comes up short in one particular category. It doesn’t do very well at helping us find information when we don’t have a clear idea of what we’re looking for. Search is still rather ineffective as a “discovery” engine. But despite its limitations in this area, we have still been increasingly conditioned to turn to search when we forage for information because of its remarkable efficiency.

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