Whatever happened to Advanced search?

I was mulling this over the other day while looking for a present for my Dad’s birthday on Amazon. OK, you can refine your search, and browse by category. But is it just me, or is Advanced search within sites becoming less and less easy to find, if they exist at all?

Sure, all the big search engines have a link pride of place, usually near or around the search box (except MSN it seems – you have to go to MSN Live). But individual sites need to think about offering researchers the option to dig deeper into their ever increasing volume of content. Information overload isn’t an urban myth – it’s been doing the rounds for some time now.

In the world of UK news sites there’s a mixed bag at present.

Taking just the quality press online, The Telegraph and Independent both provide specifically Advanced Search pages.

The Telegraph advanced search is pretty robust – allowing the searcher to browse down within news categories, providing full support for boolean, and search by headline or byline, as well as allowing the searcher to set the time-span for their search.

The Independent’s page is less ambitious. It’s worthy of note in so far as the guidance provided is absolutely bare bones (do they assume all advanced searchers assume they’ll be able to apply their trickery without acknowledgment that they’ll work?).

There’s no mention of a NOT function, but I tried it out in the following compare and contrast searches (queen edinburgh vs queen edinburgh -duke) and it clearly works (the second search removing all references to the Duke of Edinburgh, but leaving in stories about the Queen’s visits to Edinburgh.)

But neither The Guardian nor The Times provide specific Advanced Search pages, forcing the user to refine their simple search results. The Guardian provides clustered results by entity, and allows filtering of results by section, year and publication, down the left-hand local navigation.

The Times does all the above, but also lets you refine your results by date range, once you’ve run a search. It also allows results to be presented oldest first, which is useful for anyone searching for the origins of a story or news event.

Both of these papers provide bespoke Archive searches, which neither The Telegraph nor Independent have as yet.

This last point is worth considering in the context of what seems like a wider trend.

I can remember reviewing The Scotsman online during my Masters (back in 2002/2003) – and marveling at the range of their advanced search – here’s a quote from what I wrote back then. ..

Two searches are possible; a quick search, and a sophisticated advanced search, both powered by Convera. The latter allows searching over as many or as few scotsman.com domains as the user wishes. Users can chose the style of search (in terms of volume retrieved), as average, narrow, or broad; and can chose one of three ‘modes’ of search; concept (where searching for concepts, instead of exact match), pattern (for similar or confused spellings) or traditional Boolean. All of these modes offer an impressive array of special operators to improve precision or recall; headlines and by-lines can be searched independently; and all options are carefully explained, via help centre pop-ups. Results can be presented in order of closest match, most recent, or earliest story, making the whole process very flexible.

These days The Scotsman doesn’t have an Advanced option on their homepage, and in fact their results are less manipulatable than any of the national qualities above (their results are now powered by Google – just like results from my, and countless other low- and no-budget web sites).

But on the other hand, they do have a means of searching their entire archive going back to 1817 – in some detail, and at a cost.

Maybe this seeming privatisation of Advanced Search is indicative of a wider move in the industry…

Anyways getting back to the theme – the BBC doesn’t advertise it’s advanced searches on the home page either, but there are two worthy of note – one (with lots of useful options) for the whole BBC site, and one for news – both are needed, as the demands of up-to-dateness are more taxing on the latter than on the former.

It’s not just news sites who are hiding/integrating their Advanced searches.

Amazon has a range of Advanced Searches – but you won’t see them on the home page. You have to dig down into one of the categories to see the appropriate one – say Books, or Music.

These two sections offer the professional researcher useful options which can tighten up your search and help you sort wheat from chafe.

For example, with the Books advanced search, you can subject search by publication date (newest first), and so keep up to date on pre-releases in your pad/field of interest.

Likewise the Music advanced search allows search by record label. Sure if you go to the label’s site, you’ll no doubt get to hear their roster of artists – but those tracks/albums/artists will be presented to you on label’s terms, according to those bands they particularly want to plug to suit their marketing schedule.

With Amazon’s options, you can see (and hear) results through the lens of what other listeners think, which is the default ranking – welcome to web 2.0.

Flickr’s advanced search isn’t available from the home page (I had to Google it). Take a look here – again, this is a really useful option for the professional researcher. Aside from letting you search by update (useful for news events being captured in real time), there is the option to filter by Creative Commons License content – how else as a journalist can you be sure you’ll actually be able to use the image you find, if you can’t preset this condition in your search?

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