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

By Daniel M. Russell, Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2019, 336 pages, $29.95 hardcover (ISBN: 978-0-262-042871)

Joy of Search cover

This is not a book of facts, scientific knowledge or methods. Neither is it a set of instructions or principles dictating how to conduct web searches. Instead, The Joy of Search is a lively collection of the snapshots from Dan Russell’s daily search practice and observations. Holding the title of the Senior Research Scientist for Search Quality and User Happiness at Google for about 13 years, Russell tells his search anecdotes from a user’s perspective in the real-life setting just like everyone else’s. 17 of all the 20 chapters in the book are individual search stories in response to some clearly stated research questions. What Russell has done is like documenting the path of each search he completed. By unfolding these usually invisible processes happening in our computing devices every day, Russell shows readers that search techniques could be much more than they have thought.

Each of the 17 scenarios in The Joy of Search demonstrate that searching for online resources can be quotidian, entertaining, stimulating, or scholastic, deliberate, and skillful. Searching can begin with a daily contingency: when your kid comes home with a wildflower half-chewed in her mouth, would you be worried if the plant is poisonous? Go search for it online while you are waiting for the response from Poison Control. This query could evolve into a serendipitous discovery: When Russell came across a familiar name on a gravestone in Halifax, Nova Scotia, a chain of online searches helped him flesh out the whole epic history behind. These search threads were driven by some real-life events, or a vague idea, then driven by curiosity. After reading through each of the 17 search stories accompanied with rich pictures and details, I watched how Russell tweaked his search terms, looked around at different information sources, carefully examined and validated each new concept and resource he found, and then made judgments based on his knowledge and experience in every iterative round of search. Occasionally Russell takes detours when a search does not yield straightforward results, but generally each search action leads to a new layer of sense-making and understanding in answering the initial research question.

From these seemingly common-sense but also individually peculiar practices you can learn very concrete tips such as search operators or how to zigzag across diverse online search tools from Google, Wikipedia, and multimodal or domain-specific sources, to reach your answer. Russell aims to illustrate each search case as a research process: individuals start with a question, then through the course of research they run into new questions or work around some ostensible roadblocks; then alternative paths are found, and the progression of research is never linear or barrier-free.

In Russell’s image, a great researcher is “persistently resilient” (283) and always able to move beyond mistakes and setbacks. They are cogent and capable to assess their progress, knowing exactly where to start, how to proceed, and can always tell where they are and what still remains uncertain at any point. They know their research so well that they have good instincts for the emerging, subtle inconsistency or interestingness that worth chasing. They understand their search toolkits from the interface to the inner working so that they can frame their queries to match the best of the technology can achieve. They know what they reap from the search engines are raw, decontextualized fragments of knowledge, so they zoom in and out, checking details, sources, and the backdrops to weave pieces into a valid picture.

After all online search is just one class of research activities, though indispensable. In Russell’s personal examples, he also extends his research footprints to the offline world, where he reached out to the experts in the Tongva language, stepped onto the fields to examine chamise, and jumped around four archives for finding a logbook for 1826-1827. In the last chapter, Russell warns us of the illusion that can easily arise from the convenience of online search tools: It does not give you an equally open access to all the information in the world; it only returns you a flat presentation of the results a search query evokes but not the answer to a question. The real information world is lumpy, and social, political, and technical constraints reside on many parts of this world. There are still forms of information, be it virtual reality environment, 3D model, or spreadsheet, etc., beyond what a search engine can reach. At last, Russell points out that both the search technology and the online information content are in constant change; but the core, critical, and probing research skills will keep essential. Then, this book may prompt readers to rethink their skill sets to navigate the online space today.

The Joy of Search is largely a practical manual to inform general research and one’s day-to-day interaction with search engine tools. It would be a good primer for early-stage researchers, a vivid tutorial recommended by a librarian for constructing a solid foundation of information literacy, or a digestible reading for those interested in learning how far Google’s indexed resources “organizing the world’s knowledge” has come. Academic readers can benefit from the supply of research tips and skills in the book, but it might not quench their thirst for more specialized knowledge about search and research. Nevertheless, it could be sufficiently revelatory that almost all the research paths demonstrated in the book start with a search query on Google, and how much it steers our investigative trajectory and frames our information environment, as in everyone’s case. In the meantime, perhaps now comes the time to regard search, usually occurring as splints in our daily life, as an established practice that favors a prepared and deliberate mind; and how substantially it contributes to and shifts our research practices to date.

Cai Fan Du, The University of Texas at Austin