Finding, Locating, Discovering

Thanks to Tony Hollingsworth for alerting me to a post by Alex Campbell entitled “Stark realisation: I no longer depend on Google to find stuff“. The title is provocative link bait, but the take-away is very down to earth: Google is primarily useful for locating information than for discovering it.

Library scientists make a distinction between known-item and exploratory search. The former is about locating information: as an information seeker, you know the information exists, and you can even characterize it unambiguously; but the challenge is to convert that description into a location that allows you to retrieve the information. The latter is about discovery: you don’t know that the information you seek exists, and you may be sure of how to characterize what you are looking for–or even know what exactly you want until you’ve learned something about what is available.

These are extreme points on the information seeking spectrum, and most real-world tasks are in the middle, or combine subtasks of both types. For example, in physical libraries (yes, I’m that old!), I remember finding a book in the stacks and then browsing the nearby books in the hopes of serendipitous discovery. These days, I’d be more likely to scan its bibliography–or to look at the books and articles citing it. A known item can be an excellent entry point for exploration. Conversely, exploration can lead you to discover the existence of information that you then simply need to retrieve.

In common use, words like searching and finding cover this entire spectrum of information seeking activity. This breadth of meaning causes a lot of confusion. I’ve blogged about this before: “What is (Not) Search?“:

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 traditionally 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.

Back to Campbell’s article. His main points:

  • Social networks have dramatically expanded our network of contacts.
  • Search engine optimization (SEO) experts have killed their own game.
  • The flow of information has changed: information now comes to us, rather than us having to go out and find it.

I like the spirit of the post, but I think he overstates his case. SEO isn’t all bad–in fact, it’s probably a key factor in Google’s effectiveness. And, while social networks enable social search in theory, and information does come to us; we are experiencing filter failure (Clay Shirky’s term) in a big way.

My conclusion: I agree with him about Google’s limitations–Google is primarily a locating tool, not a discovery tool. Unfortunately, I’m not persuaded that social networks and our theoretical ability to construct an ideal in-flow of information have actually delivered on the promise of more efficient information access. But I’m optimistic that we’ll eventually get there.

By Daniel Tunkelang

High-Class Consultant.

13 replies on “Finding, Locating, Discovering”

Hi – I still use Google in an exploratory way as part of a portfolio of ways of getting things done.

There’s a mismatch between the information that comes to me and what I need that means that I can’t rely solely on our social networks.


Great post,

Tony Hollingsworth has helped me find a lot of great articles too!

I agree with you that SEO may not be quite as bad as portayed in the articel.

I would like to think that social media will get better as more people learn how to harness its power and also contribute content that adds value.

eg. “The special today at Cafe Next in Rozelle, passionfruit butter and pancakes was delicious”

can’t get that with a google search



Matt, exactly. Google (and Bing, for that matter) may not be well designed to support exploration, but the lack of robust exploratory search tools for the open web means that we often learn to make do with it. I would like to see social search tools that allow me to express information needs proactively and use my social network to address them (as opposed to just being a passive consumer of information supplied by that network), but the current set of social search tools is limited and / or embryonic.

Tony, I share your optimism–though I think that more effective and efficient use of social media will also require technical breakthroughs, and not just more educated users.


Hi Daniel,

I pretty much agree with your points. SEO is certainly not all bad. Existing social search has major filtering weaknesses.

These issues are more complex than I gave them credit for in my hastily constructed Tumblr post!

For example I think the in-flow of content from social networks is only part of the picture – a lot of the value comes from what happens after you receive the content. e.g. someone posts a link to a great blog entry on Twitter, you follow the link, and then find links to 3 other interesting blogs or sites that you add to your RSS.

There are so many implicit recommendations along that chain of events, and I think these are going to have more and more power as networks grow and the tools improve. Certainly in my own experience they have more power than the explicit recommendations that Google makes.

In any case – thanks for keeping this interesting discussion going!




Alex, thanks for swinging by! And you’re right that, even today, the interactive nature of social networks is a boon for information discovery.

I’d even go further and assert that one of the benefits of social networks is in providing explicit recommendations, e.g., the way I discovered your post because Tony told me to look at it. In contrast, Google can only be implicit–the ranking of results is hardly as committing (or explicit) a recommendation as a person saying “go check this out!”

Anyway, thanks again for joining the conversation here.


Another interesting work on the topic is Exploratory search: from finding to understanding.

“Serendipitous browsing that is done to stimulate analogical thinking is another kind of investigative search. Investigative searching is more concerned with recall (maximizing the number of possibly relevant objects that are retrieved) than precision (minimizing the number of possibly irrelevant objects that are retrieved) and thus not well supported by today’s Web search engines that are highly tuned toward precision in the first page of results.”


coming to this late but I totally get the problem with discussing search=information seeking vs. search=a product you buy. recently, in conversation w/a consultant – he was like “relevancy doesn’t matter” ?!!? He meant that the number of results would be small enough that ranking them precisely would be less important than other considerations – of course human relevancy != search engine ranking


Christina, better late than never! And yes, vocabulary is a major stumbling block in this space. For example, I wonder if that consultant thought about the importance of precisely identifying user intent so as to provide the user for directions to explore the larger space of related content. Is that about relevance? I’d say it is, in a broad sense of the word. But so many people fixate on ranking–to the point where they don’t even necessarily think about the filtering step that usually precedes it.


Hi Daniel,
I am so pleased to see a discussion has occurred on this blog post. I serendipitously popped back in to this post after my friend Andrew Wilson re-tweeted Alex Campbell’s post yesterday ( which Andrew had found via one of his follows (

It’s apparent there are many of us interested in how search is evolving along with online communities.

As an aside, Andrew Wilson ( and I became friends via a community meetup I help co-ordinate called “Northside Coffee Mornings” with which we use the hashtag #nscm – it occurred to Andrew that he had not even followed me on Twitter yet was engaging in conversation via use of the #nscm tag in his TweetDeck column. This was a surprise to me as it demonstrated that via hashtag tracking, you did not need to be following the person to engage meaningfully with them (in this case, resulting in the in-real-life meetup that is “coffee mornings”)

Of course, had Andrew been following me, he may have picked up on Alex’ post some weeks earlier (which has me wondering if Twitter is all about “immediacy of information” after all)

I am looking forward to reading the links about “Gary’s work” in relation to Joseph’s comment too.

Given Twitter’s own search is fairly limited (often only a week or two of history is searchable) I find myself often reverting back to FriendFeed to clarify who said what/when. FriendFeed to me is the “Google” of social search right now. I always ensure my Twitter follows are imported and up-to-date in FriendFeed. The benefit is the search is very powerful. To Tony Cosentino’s point, I can almost ask FriendFeed the “best cafe in Rozelle” question now, because although I don’t know the answer, there are people I follow (like Tony) who do, and they have at some time or another Tweeted about it – Twitter Search has lost it, but FriendFeed keeps it)

Tony Hollingsworth


[…] StumbleUpon 是目前互联网上最老牌也最成功的个性化推荐服务。它创办于 2002 年初,目标很简单,“help people discover interesting or informative web content that they wouldn’t have thought to search for.”这里面直接突出了“search”和“discover”的区别,这点我非常同意,当你明确自己需要什么的时候,search 有用,但当你漫无目的的游逛的时候,你需要的是 discover。最近正好看到一篇不错的文章,也是在说这个问题,“Finding, Locating, Discovering”。 […]


[…] StumbleUpon 是目前互联网上最老牌也最成功的个性化推荐服务。它创办于 2002 年初,目标很简单,“help people discover interesting or informative web content that they wouldn’t have thought to search for.”这里面直接突出了“search”和“discover”的区别,这点我非常同意,当你明确自己需要什么的时候,search 有用,但当你漫无目的的游逛的时候,你需要的是 discover。最近正好看到一篇不错的文章,也是在说这个问题,“Finding, Locating, Discovering”。 […]


Comments are closed.