I had a conversation the other day that raised a conundrum: what is *not* search? What do I mean by that? Well, as Stephen Arnold points out in a recent post, “search” can be anything from a “find-a-phone number problem” to a “glittering generality” that encompasses end-to-end information processing.
Language is imperfect, so is it really that important to define what is and isn’t “search”? It certainly matters when you’re trying to sell search technology! But, more importantly, we need some shared understanding in order to make progress.
At the very least, I propose that we distinguish “search” as a problem from “search” as a solution. By the former, I mean the problem of information seeking, which is traditonially the domain of library and information scientists. By the latter, I mean the approach most commonly associated with information retrieval, in which a user enters a query into the system (typically as free text) and the system returns a set of objects that match the query, perhaps with different degrees of relevancy.
Beyond that, we need to recognize that search exists within the context of tasks. It is easy to lump every task that involves information seeking as “search”, but doing so oversimplifies a complex landscape of activities and needs. I believe we are headed for a world where end users think about tasks rather than about the search activities that form part of those tasks. In that world, search technologists provide infrastructure, not the end-user destination.