When was the last time you used ‘advanced search’ on a website or information resource? Go on, admit it – unless you’re a professional searcher, the answer is probably measured in months (if not years). Why is this? Partly, it might be that the concept itself is flawed, on the basis that an effective search experience should place ‘advanced’ search tools in the hands of all users as and when they are able and willing to use them.

But mostly, I’d wager, it’s down to execution. Invariably, instances of advanced search are predicated on the notion of either parametric search or Boolean string search (or both), with all their flaws and idiosyncrasies. Inevitably, most users vote with their feet, but advanced search is retained as a concession to a more vocal group of ‘power users’. Not that their needs are not legitimate, of course – quite the contrary – but my point here is that support for that requirement and the requirement itself are two very different things.

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Why are Boolean strings so ubiquitous? Recruiters use them, lawyers use them, librarians use them, and many more. But as a universal format for expressing information needs, they leave a lot to be desired.

Which is why I recently posted an article called “This is why Boolean strings don’t work” on Medium. In that post, I outline three fundamental shortcomings inherent to the approach, and offer a call to action to consider alternatives. I hope you’ll join me in the pursuit of an alternative.

For further details, check out the post on Medium, or have a look at our alternative approach.

In our last post we reviewed some of the issues involved in developing effective solutions to complex search problems, and explored some of the challenges involved in formulating and representing Boolean strings and expressions. In particular, we explored the contribution of three experimental systems which aimed to offer an alternative to the conventional approach exemplified by line-by-line query builders and ‘advanced search’ forms. In this piece, we review some of the more recent examples, and reflect on the ways in which their ideas, insights and innovations may be productively applied to address contemporary search challenges.

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According to the IDC whitepaper, The High Cost of Not Finding Information, knowledge workers spend 2.5 hours per day searching for information. Whether they eventually find what they are looking for or just stop and make a sub-optimal decision, there is a high cost to both outcomes. The recruitment industry, for example, relies on Boolean search as the foundation of the candidate sourcing process, and yet finding candidates with appropriate skills and experience remains an ongoing challenge. Likewise, healthcare information professionals perform painstaking searches of literature sources as the foundation of the evidence-based approach to medicine, but systematic literature reviews can take years to complete and new research findings may be published in the interim, leading to a lack of currency and potential for inaccuracy. Similarly, patent agents rely on accurate prior art search as the foundation of their due diligence process, and yet infringement suits are being filed at a rate of more than 10 a day due to the later discovery of prior art which their original search tools missed.

What these professions have in common is a need to develop search strategies that are accurate, repeatable and transparent. The traditional solution to this problem is to use line-by-line query builders which require the user to enter Boolean strings that may then be combined to form a multi-line search strategy:

However, such query builders typically offer limited support for error checking or query optimization, and their output is often compromised by mistakes and inefficiencies. In this post, we review three early but highly original and influential alternatives, and discuss their contribution to contemporary issues and design challenges.

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A while ago I wrote a post discussing some of the shortcomings of current approaches to search; focusing on the relatively primitive and inefficient formalisms used by many database vendors to express search strategies. In that post, I argued that the conventional approach shares many of the shortcomings of early programming languages such as first generation Basic, relying on arbitrary labels such as line numbers to convey structure and organisation.

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In our last few posts we’ve discussed a range of topics that have explored some of the complexity and nuance in designing effective search experiences. However, much of this complexity is hidden from the majority of us, as its effect is most keenly felt in what we call ‘professional search’ applications, i.e. those used by lawyers, scientists, information professionals, etc. in the course of their work. These individuals undertake search tasks as part of their professional duties, often applying specialist expertise to address a specific brief, with a high value outcome and within explicit resource constraints.

So I am delighted therefore to invite you to attend the First International Workshop on Professional Search, which will be held on 12 July in Ann Arbor, Michigan as part of SIGIR 2018:

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IRSG logoJust in case you missed it, here are details of the latest issue of Informer, which came out on this week. As usual, lots of good stuff, with a mix of conference reviews, feature articles, news and updates in the world of IR. For further details see the Informer website. Or if you fancy becoming a contributor, get in touch!

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