The Best Place to Find a Needle is a Haystack

HaystacksConventional wisdom tells us that the best place for a needle is in a needle case, and the best place for hay is in a haystack. If you want to find something, or want other people to find it, you should put it in the right place. As we were all taught: a place for everything, and everything in its place.

That was true when we lived in the physical world. But we don’t live in the physical world anymore. We live on the Internet, and the Internet is topsy turvey world in which the best place to find a needle is actually a haystack.

A story to illustrate…

I belong to my local Miata club. Like all such clubs, we have a mailing list. A few weeks back, one of the members posted a question to the list. Did anyone know what the gear ratios are on a 2006 Miata GT? He was using a timeless and universal method for finding information: he was asking his buddies. This form of information seeking behavior is basic and will never change, so I’ll call this guy Timeless Man, or Mt for short.

The first reply he got was from a member who had tried to look up the information on miata.net. miata.net is the largest community of Miata enthusiasts in the world. If you Google the word “Miata”, miata.net is usually the number one site that Google returns. If you want information on a Miata, it is the logical place to look. He was using classic 20th century information seeking behavior: he was consulting an authoritative source. I’ll call him twentieth-century man, or M20.

Despite consulting the best and most authoritative source on the Net, M20 did not find the gear ratios of a 2006 Miata GT. He recommended that Mt should call Mazda for the information. Again, this is sound 20th century thinking: go to the authoritative source.

The second reply to Mt’s query came from someone I will call twenty-first century man, or M21. M21 had simply typed “gear ratios 2006 Miata GT” into Google, and found the answer. I don’t know exactly where he found it; he didn’t say. He may well have found it on miata.net. The difference between M21’s successful strategy and M20’s failed strategy is that M21 did not bother to confine his search to authoritative sources. He simply searched the entire universe and let Google do its job. M20 looked for a needle in a needle case and failed. M21 looked for a needle in a haystack and succeeded. We live in topsy-turvey world.

Note that I said that M21 may well have found the information on miata.net. Google’s search engine is so much better than miata.net’s search engine that it will often find information on miata.net that miata.net’s own search engine can’t find. I’ve experienced this several times while looking for information for my own Miata. I get better results by searching the haystack than the needle case, even when the needle I want is in the needle case.

Here’s the problem: the laws of topsy-turvey world knock most of the presumptions of information architecture into a cocked hat. Information architecture concerns itself with the architecture of an individual web site. An information architect would probably blanch at the sight of miata.net, which is mostly a whacking big web forum of the sort that as been around for more than a decade. A good information architect could probably do a lot to make miata.net more usable for twentieth-century man.

But no amount of information architecture makeover is going to change how twenty-first century man searches for information. M21 is still going to Google the universe, and M21’s strategy is still going to be more successful than M20’s, even if miata.net has the greatest information-architecture makeover that the world has ever seen, because there is still information that is not on miata.net. M21 will find that information; M20 won’t.

The content strategist must ask, whom am I serving: M20 or M21? If you are serving M20, your content strategy is tied up with your information architecture, but if you are trying to serve M21, the only thing that matters is the individual page that Google drops him on. Either that page meets his needs or it doesn’t. Woe betide you if you try to redirect him to a landing page or ensnare him in some local navigation scheme. Either the page works, directly and immediately, or M21 hits the back button and chooses the next page in the search results.

So, is M20 a dying breed? Will M21 displace him as homo sapiens replaced neanderthals? Certainly this is not a generational thing. Mt, M20, M21, and I are all members of a miata club, which is to say we are all middle-aged, middle-class North-American males. M20 and M21 both work in high tech industries. The principal difference between them is that M20 works in regulatory affairs and M21 works in sales. That probably means that M20 is a bit more inclined to rely on authority, and to consult authoritative sources as a matter of course.

Will that continue indefinitely? I doubt it. M21’s information gathering strategy just simply works better than M20’s strategy. It may be topsy-turvey to a mind trained in 20th century methods, but superior performance always wins out in the end. The car replaces the horse; the steamer replaces the clipper, the light bulb replaces the candle. Topsy-turvey world starts to look the right way up after a while.

So here’s my question to the information architects and the content strategists of the world: are you building a paradise for twentieth-century man on twentieth-century principles? Are you building clipper ships at the dawn of the age of steam?

 

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3 Responses to The Best Place to Find a Needle is a Haystack

  1. Larry Kunz 2011/10/12 at 15:16 #

    But did M21 find the right information? What would he have done if he’d found two sources, each one contradicting the other?

    While I don’t deny a thing that you say here, Mark, I think that your story is incomplete. The next generation, call him 2010s man, will rely on curated content to ensure that he doesn’t find just any needle — he finds the right needle in the midst of the chaos. M2010 is discovering that we can’t simply do away with all forms of authority.

    The alternative is too ugly to contemplate: we’re witnessing the death of critical thinking.

    • Mark Baker 2011/10/13 at 21:46 #

      Hi Larry, thanks for the reply. You raise an important question and an interesting speculation.

      To the question: how does M21 verify the information he finds. In this particular case, there are a couple of things he could do. First, he can check the website he is on. If it is a Mazda site, that is probably sufficient verification. If the site provides no authority, or he has different answers, he can post the two answers on a miata.net forum and ask which is right. Someone there will provide an authoritative answer, complete with cited authorities. Call it the crowd-sourcing of authority, if you like.

      This pattern points to something very interesting, which I had not originally considered. Part of what has gone topsy-turvy is that the twentieth-century approach is to first find an authority and then to ask the question. The twenty-first century approach is to first ask the question, then seek the authority of the answer. Part of what is happening here is that in searching the haystack we not only find answers, we also find authorities attached to those answers (to one degree or another). The answer leads you to the authority, rather than the authority leading you to the answer.

      To the speculation: You suggest that what I have called the twenty-first century man may last a decade rather than a century and that a new form of authority will arise in the form of curated content. Can you expand on what you mean by curated content? Who will be the curators, and on what scale will they curate? How will what they do be different from what Yahoo tried to do when they set out to catalogue the web? Do you not subscribe to David Weinberger’s notion that curation itself has been crowd-sourced?

      As to the death of critical thinking, I’m not sure I see that. The methods by which critical thinking is conducted may be changing, but that is not the same thing. True, a disciplined craft of any kind does depend on a set of proven procedures, and when a new method comes along, it initially lacks the discipline and provenance or the old. That can look like the loss of the craft itself, but it isn’t. It is, rather, a time of transition from which the craft itself can emerge stronger, its new methods disciplined and proven by experience.

      I think that M21 is here to stay, but we are still in a period of rapid development, and M2010 could indeed be around the corner. I’d love to hear more about your vision of M2010 and his reliance on curated content.

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  1. Customizing the No Results Found Page with Helpful Wayfinding Tips | I'd Rather Be Writing - 2011/10/17

    […] Mark Baker points out that because search in help authoring tools is so poor, it’s often easier to find content using Google’s search engine instead, even if this means that searching trillions of web pages instead of narrowly focusing on specialized sites. Baker explains, “I get better results by searching the haystack than the needle case, even when the needle I want is in the needle case” (see The Best Place to Find a Needle Is a Haystack). […]