What Google’s New Search Algorithm Means for Libraries

Image Credit: PC Mag

In the nostalgic garage where Google first operated, Google celebrated it’s 15th anniversary with the announcement of Hummingbird. Hummingbird is Google’s new algorithm that has been silently implemented for about the past month. The algorithm is intended to produce more relevant results based on natural language search queries and networked relationships (think a more robust Knowledge Graph). On of the reasons for this revamp was due to the influx of people “speaking” searches into their mobile device. When people speak searches they are more likely to speak as they would to a person (i.e. natural language).

So what does this mean for libraries? I think as Google adjusts to the way people search so should our databases and catalog search engines. Robert Hof in a recent Forbes article stated “it’s interesting that although queries are getting more complex, that doesn’t always mean it’s harder to find the right answers. ‘The more terms people use, Huffman says, the more context Google can divine.’ So those extra words, even if they’re in a more complex query, can give Google better information–but only if the algorithms are adjusted to be able to recognize the relationship among those terms.” Students/patrons are already used to searching using natural language and as Google gets better at giving relevant results they will use it even more. We as libraries should be right behind Google in modifying our algorithms to be more semantic. Semantic searching also opens up the opportunity to see relationships between search results and ultimately discover new information. For example: a search in Google for Albert Einstein will  provide information on where he was born, when he died, who his children were…as well as related scientists like Isaac Newton and Thomas Edison. All without even having to click on an item record. In my opinion our catalogs need to start out with a default “semantic search” and then have options for advanced navigational searching.

Ok Ok so this might be easier said than done depending on your budgetary constraints and programming know how. But even if we can’t change our catalog searching algorithms we need to be making even more of an effort to show the differences between Google searching and library catalog/database searching.  As Google becomes better at providing results using natural language, students can be disillusioned into thinking all search engines perform the same way. I am definitely going to be teaching my students search query formulation even during my “one shot” 1 hour library orientation sessions because I think this is extremely important for students to be aware of. Also we as librarians need to stay current in the way Google is changing and improving so we can make our instructional sessions more relevant.

Google fun fact: Google was first used as a verb on Buffy the Vampire Slayer in 2002 (Help episode)

Please share any thoughts you have on the Hummingbird launch!