Use Search Engines Early and Often

post by katydee · 2013-05-05T08:33:01.758Z · score: 0 (13 votes) · LW · GW · Legacy · 13 comments

The Internet contains vast amounts of useful content. Unfortunately, it also contains vast amounts of garbage, superstimulus hazards, and false, meaningless, or outright harmful information. One skill that is hence quite useful in the modern day is using search engines correctly, allowing you to separate the wheat from the chaff. When doing so, one can often uncover preexisting work that solves your problem for you, the answers to relevant factual questions, and so on. It is rare to find a situation where search engines are outright useless-- at the very least they tend to point you in the direction of useful information.

Further, the time cost of setting up and refining a search is extremely low, meaning that most of the time "just Google it" should in fact be your default response to a situation where you don't have very much information.[1] Overall, I consider one's ability to use search engines-- and, just as importantly, one's ability to recognize what types of situations can benefit from using them-- a basic but fairly significant instrumental rationality skill.

Much of the above sounds extremely obvious, and in point of fact it should be-- but the fact remains that people don't use search engines anywhere near as often as they seemingly should. I've frequently found myself in situations where someone in the same room as me asks me a trivially searchable factual question while we are both using computers. Worse still, I've been in situations where people do the same over IRC! The existence of lmgtfy indicates that others have noticed this issue before, and yet it remains a problem.

So, how can we do better?

One easy trick that I've found very helpful is to use Goodsearch instead of Google. Goodsearch is a service that automatically donates a cent to a charity of your choice whenever you search.[2] Further, it can be installed into your search toolbar in Firefox, making the activation cost of using Goodsearch rather than Google essentially zero if, like me, you tend to search in the search bar instead of the URL field. Goodsearch has had profound effects on my tendency to perform searches because it gives me a little hit of "doing good" every time I perform a search, thus encouraging me to do so in more situations, thus causing me to accrue more money via Goodsearch, etc.

This has not only made me more productive by causing me to search more but added positive externalities to every search I conduct. Earlier, I would say that I frequently used search engines to find out information about a new topic or project-- now I would say that I nearly automatically do this as the first step in most situations where I need some information before proceeding. The potential information gained from a search is very high, the costs of performing a search are very low, and with Goodsearch you can donate a little bit to charity while you do so.

If you're reading this in Firefox and haven't already spent large amounts of time getting used to advanced search methods in other engines (and maybe even if you have), I strongly suggest navigating over to Goodsearch, signing up for an account, and installing the Goodsearch App to make it your default toolbar search. For me, this proved to be a big win-- opportunities to increase instrumental rationality for only a minimal time expenditure while also earning free money for charity are not exactly common!

 

[1] Note that there are some things you might not want to Google. I would, for instance, be very careful about what terms I used if I were looking into the history of political assassinations.

[2] Before anyone gets too clever, there are restrictions.

13 comments

Comments sorted by top scores.

comment by Xachariah · 2013-05-05T14:20:27.651Z · score: 9 (11 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Why do you advertise for Goodsearch? As far as I can tell, Goodsearch itself is a for-profit LLC that makes it's money by drawing referrals to Yahoo, by way of putting kittens and children on it's front page and making people feel good about doing searches. They're just trading a portion of revenue for increased marketshare.

But you're trading time. You earn 1 cent a search; at minimum wage, that's 5 seconds of labor time. Rough estimate of their criteria says that less than half my searches would be eligible for donation. So, in order for Goodsearch to be worth it, I'd need to be able to find what exactly I'm looking for on Yahoo no more than 2.5 seconds slower than Google/DuckDuckGo. A quick Yahoo search shows that to be off... probably by at least an order of magnitude. If you think you'd personally get better results than that though, by all means go ahead.

Time has value too, and that's what you're spending when you switch to Goodsearch.

comment by katydee · 2013-05-05T15:14:42.361Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Why do you advertise for Goodsearch? As far as I can tell, Goodsearch itself is a for-profit LLC that makes it's money by drawing referrals to Yahoo, by way of putting kittens and children on it's front page and making people feel good about doing searches. They're just trading a portion of revenue for increased marketshare.

I recommend Goodsearch because for me it was very helpful for getting me to search more. I don't particularly care what their business model is and in fact I hope they make good money so that I can continue benefiting from their service.

While I certainly agree that Google search is typically better than Yahoo search, I find that in practice Yahoo search is good enough most of the time, Google search is still easily available via the URL bar, and conducting any search at all is better than not doing so. Even if Goodsearch makes using search less efficient, for me it makes me use search more often, and the efficiency lost by decreasing any given search seems more than made up for by the efficiency gained by searching at all in contexts where I might otherwise forget to.

Your mileage may, of course, vary, but hey-- if things don't work it's easy to switch your default toolbar search engine back! This strikes me as a situation that is remarkably easy to test and potentially very valuable-- hence my recommendation.

comment by gwern · 2013-05-05T15:14:02.094Z · score: 4 (4 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

A list of personal examples of how a willingness to use Google can be applied on LW: http://lesswrong.com/r/discussion/lw/h3w/open_thread_april_115_2013/8p3q

comment by tgb · 2013-05-05T15:44:30.248Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Thanks. That made me revise my opinion of 'this obviously doens't apply to me, I Google everything always' to something closer to baseline. I've always seen myself as someone who bothers to Google it while everyone else just sits around authoritatively misquoting the US constitution (or whatever), but I'm pretty sure you or someone else here has 'Googled it' for me in at least once before.

comment by Viliam_Bur · 2013-05-05T11:20:19.576Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

When I tried to invent a new rationality exercise, "Using Google" was one of the ideas. The exercise could be like this:

Give participants a list of many (non-mindkilling) questions they probably don't know, such as "How high is Eiffel's tower?". First let them comtemplate the questions somehow. (Perhaps tell them to guess the answers, make a probability estimates, or something. Just to let them feel that they don't know.) Then give them a computer and a short time limit (5 minutes), and tell them to answer as many questions as they can using Google. Then compare the answers in a group... and if there is some disagreement or suspicion, explore the topic more deeply (again, using Google).

The idea is to make people feel the contrast between how difficult the question felt, and how quickly and reliably it could be answered by using Google. This way they should be more likely to use Google in the future, when they are curious about something.

(Of course it is fair to note that this strategy does not necessarily work with mindkilling ideas, where people invest a lot of effort into creating and promoting web pages with incorrect information. Another good idea could be: in case of controversy, read the Wikipedia article and it's talk page.)

comment by Tenoke · 2013-05-05T12:05:16.312Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

I wondered midways through why this good post has negative karma. After reading the rest I realized it is because the post looks like an ad for Goodsearch. I wouldn't even consider switching but I upvoted because people are still not used enough to googling. However, at least from my point of view, people have been growing more and more accustomed to using search engines and the situation is much better than a few years ago.

comment by katydee · 2013-05-08T01:49:27.341Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

I'm definitely very surprised that this post ended up at -1. Can some of the downvoters offer expanded explanations either here or via PM? My current model is that people thought I was plugging Goodsearch too hard, so if you downvoted the post for reasons other than that I'm especially interested in hearing from you.

comment by Viliam_Bur · 2013-05-11T12:44:31.112Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

For me a related reason was that you told us to use Goodsearch without telling us why should we believe this:

Goodsearch is a service that automatically donates a cent to a charity of your choice whenever you search.

To me it pattern-matches to hoaxes like "if you send this message to all your friends, Bill Gates will send a dollar to children in Africa" and many similar.

Sure, I could do some research about it. But since you are the one using LW to promote Goodsearch, perhaps the research should be done using your time.

Also, asking people to install a "free money-making software" on their computers pattern-matches to some bad things.

In other words, if you want us to use Goodsearch, then give us more specific information about Goodsearch, not only applause lights.

comment by [deleted] · 2013-05-05T13:17:52.978Z · score: -1 (11 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Overall, I consider one's ability to use search engines-- and, just as importantly, one's ability to recognize what types of situations can benefit from using them-- a basic but fairly significant instrumental rationality skill.

A basic rationality skill that stops and starts at national borders is problematic. The Internet is filtered in many places, difficult to access in many others.

comment by katydee · 2013-05-05T15:28:14.015Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

A basic rationality skill that stops and starts at national borders is problematic. The Internet is filtered in many places, difficult to access in many others.

In what respect? Many tools are restricted in some areas and unrestricted in others. The fact that one of those tools happens to very useful for instrumental rationality is unfortunate, but it does not make it less important.

comment by [deleted] · 2013-05-05T15:44:05.538Z · score: 1 (3 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Important and basic are not the same. The original post claimed 'one's ability to use search engines is a basic instrumental rationality skill.' To lack something that is basic is to not be able to move forward. I make the counter-claim lack of any internet skill is no detriment to rationality. I add that claiming internet use is a basic rationality skill suggests a lack of consideration of those places where the internet is filtered or more difficult to access. I am not saying the original post or its author is racist, rude, insensitive, mean or foolish. I am saying the original post's author appears to have not considered those places where the internet is filtered or more difficult to access. Which is plenty of people.

comment by fubarobfusco · 2013-05-05T22:17:57.720Z · score: 5 (7 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Agreed — it isn't basic. Using whatever informational resources are ready to hand is a basic skill. Search engines are a specific tool.

comment by DaFranker · 2013-05-06T20:31:25.410Z · score: 0 (4 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Explicit praise: Clever dissolution and reduction of everything in a very concise and helpful manner. Keep doing this! <3