The Joy of Search: A Google Insider’s Guide to Going Beyond the Basics

The Joy of Search: A Google Insider’s Guide to Going Beyond the Basics
by Daniel Russell

The MIT Press, Cambridge, MA, 2019
336 pp., illus. 182 col. Trade, $29.95
ISBN: 9780262042871.

Reviewed by
Michael Punt
November 2019

On the face of it The Joy of Search: A Google Insider’s Guide to Going Beyond the Basics does just what it says on the dust jacket. Its Google-inspired graphics (a san serif font and primary colours gently muted with a touch of white) foreshadows Daniel M. Russell’s convivial conversational style that guides us through online research with an invisible hand edging us toward Google. The book seems to want to do a number of things: the first is to extend the basic affordance of the Google search engine so that some of its additional (and frequently unused) potential is opened up. The second is to introduce some simple structure to researchers so that the tendency to follow an infinitely expanding thread of ‘interesting’ connections is somehow brought under control to generate new insight. In the process the book also wants to say some things about Google itself. It generously acknowledges other kinds of search engines and is especially valuable in its approach to Wikipedia and other resources but – possibly quite reasonably given its author - all roads do lead back to Google. After an introduction Russell uses 17 case study questions as chapter headings to gently increase the reader’s understanding of what can be done. They are the sorts of questions that at first sight seem trivial temptations but, as each case shows, researching the answer systematically can begin to reveal important lessons in methodology and insight into the world.

In truth there is not much new to discover in the book for anyone who has used the search engine to try to get to the bottom of something or other. There are one or two tricks that might have been forgotten and perhaps one or two that might be useful at some time in the future. But showing tricks is neither the purpose or strength of what Russell has to offer. To go deeply into Google (the search engine) would very quickly expose the need to understand its revenue model and how data from search activity was gathered and used to refine the efficiency of the search engine in order to more effectively marketize its userbase and develop new products. Russell’s real mission is to help users to become more serious researchers and, in the process become more discerning, and possibly more valuable, clients by introducing an awareness of research methods and protocols. There is an obvious ecology in this; the quality of the users’ research is directly reflected in the search engine as a commercial resource. Just as the revenue model repeats the media strategy of selling users back to themselves (e.g. as in quiz and reality shows) so its approach to content is in line with the truth about most universities which is that they are only as good as their students.

Google is nothing if not eclectic, and that too is reflected in Russell’s approach. He starts with the basics that (i) good research begins with a question and hypothesis that is tested with evidence and (ii) not everything that one will need to know or do in order to answer the question is online (iii) not everything that sounds like a question is a question and (iv) and questions are only questions when you can be sure that you can tell if they have been answered. These are familiar messages consistently well-rehearsed in any educational forum and as almost as consistently ignored in the class room until a certain critical mass has been acquired by the student. The danger for the individual using a search engine like Google, however, is that it can often feel like research because after a very short time something new (for the user) is discovered which is at, best forgotten quickly and, perhaps more seriously, can lead to a self-delusion that one is actually ‘doing’ research. The danger in this for Google (the corporation) is that without a disciplined user-base it will become, like social media, a flea market of undifferentiated assertions that cannot be correlated or verified in any meaningful way. In this scenario Google could become a mere portal to respected subscription research services and other free resources such as  Wikipedia, Creative Commons, the Internet Archive, and Government resources etc. Russell’s strategy to avoid this is to capture the born digital generation in an engaging and informative series of routine exercises disguised as anecdotes. It is a solid and admirable effort that seems to have the deft hand of a copywriter underneath it somewhere in the editorial process. There is a careful crafting of the engagement of the reader into the text to iron out any difference between the author and his readers. Great care has been taken to maintain the sense of intellectual symmetry and cultural fellowship between himself, (described on the cover as Senior Research Scientist for Search Quality and User happiness at Google) and an intended reader who is clearly at the beginning of the process.

Whether Russell has got the tone right or not remains to be seen. For those whose first experience of Google was in the heady days of the internet as a technological platform for a global gift culture it was a playful name; it was one of the gang of pioneers changing the shape of how we find things out. It was this generation that progressively integrated Google it into their research methods as in the background Google integrated their research appetites into it is business plan to marketize curiosity. To the pioneers the book can seem cynically convivial and its anecdotal style rather synthetic,  but as a carefully crafted effort at intergenerational collaboration it is a valuable model to reflect upon if we are  to work together to reclaim some space on the internet for its original idealistic origins.