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On search terms.

November 16, 2009

When I teach academic writing  I spend at least one lesson a semester on search terms. The focus is on interacting with the library’s various electronic interfaces, whether the catalogue or research databases, but the applications to google and other free-web searching are implied. We talk about generating key terms, brainstorming synonyms to those terms, assessing the most effective pairings of terms, etc. The basic purpose is to limit results, but the real lesson is to conceptually focus the “questions” asked along with the “answers” gathered. One major point of the lesson is that you can’t expect to enter what’s in your head into a search engine and have, serendipitously, exactly what you want come back.

I remember my delight and horror in reading massive amounts of search data, along with the rest of the nerdier side of the Internet, leaked/published by AOL back in 2006. The hilarious and sad narratives that emerged through successive searches, the amazingly different ways people were stringing together concepts and queries. The mix of grammars–terse amalgams of search terms, fully punctuated sentences, heartbreakingly specific questions. “Cat food + obesity” from one user, say, and “Why doesn’t my husband love me anymore?” from another.

This was before the heyday of YahooAnswers, before sites (or as many sites) devoted to the question-answer format. When I, at least, was much less accustomed to the search-bar being approached like a magic 8-ball. Or some bizarre form of diary, where one writes one line at a time. In the sand. Right before the tide comes, or something. Because wtf?

What those AOL searches revealed, and what a periodic look at the search terms that bring people to this here blog reveals, is that many, many users use a search engine grammar that still absolutely surprises me.

Maybe I’m old school in preferring broken syntax, keyword heavy searches. To take examples from searches that brought traffic to this blog, I find “baby drool rash” and “maternity clothes” to fit my notion of proper input to a search engine. Same goes for “dickmilkmachine” and “20 week scan scrotal sack [sic].”

Some conjunctions and prepositions here and there can be appropriate in refining and specifying, good examples being “strep throat and flu” or “accidents that happen at home to babies.” And statements with implied question strike me as a part of the web’s rich history  as the mecca for comparison shoppers (“best spoon to eat yogurt“). Punctuation is usually unnecessary unless it’s serving a purpose, like a truncation symbol or quotation marks to lock terms into a sequence. But I do love the almost poetic use of a comma in this recent search: “magsafe, baby drool” (yes, as I have found out the hard way, that combination is not a good one).

Now, listen, I see why more grammatically detailed questions can aid in gathering more specific results, at least now, post-YahooAnswers and such. Because someone else may have asked the exact same question, or close to it, and the Internet has already answered. I see the efficiency in this system.

I also see how it can really help people. To find someone struggling with precisely what you are struggling with. To know you are not alone. To find you are not the only one whose “babys teeth taking chunks from my nipple” (a search after my own breastheart!).

In these cases, the personal pronoun finds its way in, but it is a general personal-pronoun, it is aware that its I and my is infinitely replaceable by someone else’s. The I in the cases below, for example, is looking for another I to take over and tell it’s tale:

“if my baby ate paper what will happen?” (my I will tell you: Readable clumps of feces.)

“if we do not speak with baby what will happen?” (at all? bad, bad things. not enough? this I speculated that he will never develop an appropriate taste for cewebrities.)

But the really specific, personal questions, with declarative personal pronouns which do not seem to invite substitution–these are new. I mean, maybe it’s like 2007 new, or maybe it’s not new at all, but it seems new, to me.

Some are just a bit off, odd renditions of what would otherwise be a keyword search, for example: “i am looking for a arm for acrib mobel” strikes me as just an overly written “arm for crib mobile.”

But what to do with the hauntingly sad diary entry searches, that, while potentially looking to identify with others, to find a community, are not questions, do not seem to invite answers, and do not seem to invite substitution of other Is or mys. Take, for example:

“i paid for son teeth now i am in hobble dept and can’t afford to pay for my own teeth”

What is the purpose of this type of search? Are these searches just whispers into the e-ether, like saying something aloud to release it, even if there is no one to hear, no one to respond? They make me so sad. Especially when I know the person probably didn’t find any comfort here, a search engine dead end.

I guess what’s much sadder, if we’re being honest, is the disturbing number of searchers that find their way here looking, I assume from their search terms, for child pornography. Some of the terms are so unbelievable, sad, disturbing. I suppose they could be funny in an abstract way, only if you take into account the horrid spelling (like, seriously? “peanus”?); but ultimately I can’t laugh at those desires. They are so outrageous and awful that I sometimes feel compelled to share them with others, saw, with you. But there is an ethics of reproduction (my friend EH and others have written about this before) that is quite tricky. Regardless of context you are proliferating the image through repeating search terms which represent a (desired) image. And as in many things, ethical dilemmas like these get even more complicated when combined with the particularities of Internet–that anonymous, uncontrollable zone with seemingly limitless potential for reproduction. Plus, in some sad side effect of search-engine-optimazation, repeating the terms in a post like this will just bring more people looking for something this blog, hopefully this earth, doesn’t have to offer.

Whether woebegone declarations or execrable pursuits, I look at them with fascination and not a small feeling of voyeurism. Searches, even as they reach out for information and identification, seem private in some fundamental way. Of course, sometimes they seem less private and more um…pointed…as they reach right out and SMACK YOU IN THE FACE, leaving you looking over your shoulder in terror. And by sometimes, I mean on the day my wordpress dashboard’s report of the search terms looked like this:

In other, simply amazing, news, this.

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3 Comments leave one →
  1. November 16, 2009 8:09 pm

    Ah, yeah. I don’t even look at the Google search terms in my stats, because it’s alternately sad and disturbing. Even a glance at the Lijit search terms on the search widget on my blog – people so frequently come there looking for Dooce? Really? – is strange enough. And that whole bad dad/bad fatherhood thing…

    I don’t know. You’re right that it’s fascinating in a narrative sense – in that it seems to yield wee capsule narratives, in some ways not unlike the six-word memoirs. But still strange, and sometimes, as you say, unnerving.

    (I avoid profanity on HBM solely because of search issues – ‘bad mother’ is bad enough without adding anything with four letters. In my first year of blogging the search hits related to ‘bad’ things to do with mothers and children were enough to turn me off looking at SiteMeter, ever, and to move me to do that twee thing where you sub out ‘u’ for ‘*’ in a certain word that begins with f.)

    • Accidents permalink*
      November 17, 2009 10:55 am

      I’ve puzzled at that widget on your blog (the Dooce thing) as well.

      Indeed, to the swearing: referring to myself in an early post as a “poor-as-f*ck graduate student” has revealed that the Internets is keen on f*cking graduate students. Who knew we were so desirable!


  1. Language games. « Accidents will happen.

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