Relevancy Rules

Inspired by the Summon result click stats that Matthew Reidsma has extracted (and, to be honest, I find myself being regularly inspired by what Matthew’s doing!), I’ve started tracking the clicks on our Summon instance too.

Anyone who’s had the misfortune to hear me present recently will know I’ve been waffling on about the importance of making e-resources easy to use and painless to access, and the fact that most of us are biologically programmed to follow the easiest route to information

…an information [seeker] will tend to use the most convenient search method, in the least exacting mode available. Information seeking behaviour stops as soon as minimally acceptable results are found.
Wikipedia, Principle of least effort

Why will our students not get up and walk a hundred meters to access a key journal article in the library? … the overwhelming propensity of most people is to invest as absolutely little effort into information seeking as they possibly can.
Prof Marcia J. Bates, “Toward an Integrated Model of Information Seeking & Searching” (2002)

…numerous studies have shown users are often willing to sacrifice information quality for accessibility. This fast food approach to information consumption drives librarians crazy. “Our information is healthier and tastes better too” they shout. But nobody listens. We’re too busy Googling.
Peter Morville, “Ambient Findability” (O’Reilly 2005)

As early as 2004, in a focus group for one of my research studies, a college freshman bemoaned, “Why is Google so easy and the library so hard?”
Carol Tenopir, “Visualize the Perfect Search” (Library Journal 2009)

The present findings indicated that the principle of least effort prevailed in the respondents’ selection and use of information sources.
Liu & Yang, “Factors Influencing Distance-Education Graduate Students’ Use of Information Sources: A User Study” (2004)

People do not just use information that is easy to find; they even use information that they know to be of poor quality and less reliable — so long as it requires little effort to find — rather than using information they know to be of high quality and reliable, though harder to find.
Jason Vaughan, “Web Scale Discovery Services” (ALA TechSource 2011)


If you’re looking at Discovery Services, demand a trial and don’t get distracted by how many options the advanced search page has, how well it handles complex Boolean queries, or how many obscure specialist subject headings it supports — to misquote Obi-Wan Kenobi, “these are not the features you are looking for”. The real questions you should be asking are:

  • Can students use the skills they’ve already picked up from a lifetime of searching Google to use this thing?
  • If I pluck 2 or 3 vaguely relevant keywords out of the air and type them in (possibly misspelling them), do I get useful and relevant results?
  • If I choose some slightly more carefully considered keywords, are the first 5 results on the first page all relevant?
  • Does the interface look uncluttered, straightforward to use and, if I wanted to, is it obvious how to refine the search?
  • Does this product work with EZProxy (or similar) to provide easy off-campus access to articles?

…in fact, and please don’t take this wrong way, you’re possibly not the best person to be answering some of those questions as your neural pathways have been severely damaged by years of using poorly designed journal database interfaces and you have an unhealthy (bordering on the sexually perverse) obsession with “advanced” search pages 😉

Instead, grab some of your newest students (ideally ones who look blankly at you when you ask them if they know what a Boolean operators is) and let them play with it — the more Information Illiterate they are, the better! Treat their comments as pearls of wisdom (“out of the mouth of babes…”) and try to see the library’s e-resource world through their eyes for what it really is: a scary alien landscape of weird library terminology, perplexing login screens, and unnecessary friction at every turn. Above all, never forget that “Libraries are a cruel mistress“!

Matt Borg nicely summed up the above when he cheekily said (and apologies for paraphrasing you, Matt!)…

The trouble with Summon is that students don’t need to be taught how to use it, but librarians do

In other words, you shouldn’t have to be an Information Professional to use a Discovery Service and you don’t have to become a mini-librarian just in order to figure out how the damn thing works. If the interface looks comfortable and familiar to you, it’s probably been designed for librarians to use and will the scare the bejebus out of most of your students. Swallow hard, gird your loins and remember that you’re not buying this product to make your life easier (although chances are it will), you’re buying it to make life easier for your users.

Or, to put it another way, if a Discovery Service looks like a journal database and acts like a journal database, then it probably is a journal database and not a Discovery Service. There’s a very good reason Summon looks more like Google and less like like <insert name of your favourite database here> 😀

(If your idea of a “good time” is to scare undergraduates in training sessions by showing them journal database interfaces — “it’s OK, I’m a friendly librarian and I’m here to show you just how hard it can be to find an article!” — then it’s probably high time you sought medical counselling ;-))

OK, so why am I ranting on about all this stuff? It’s simply because I’ve been pulling out some usage stats from our Summon instance…

  • The library’s print collection accounts for just 0.3% of the items, but accounts for 10.3% of the result clicks — I think our users are trying to tell us that they think our OPAC sucks and they’d rather use Summon to search for books
  • 89% of the results clicked on appeared on the first page of results — as with Google, users rarely delve any further the page 1 of the results
  • Only 2% of result clicks came from beyond the 4th page of the results — very few users will explore the long tail of results
  • 50.5% of result clicks were for the first 4 results on page 1 — the majority of users won’t even bother to scroll down the page!
  • 72.3% of searches used 3 keywords or less — students are using their Google skills
  • Since launching Summon, we’ve seen increases of 300% to 1000% in the COUNTER full-text download stats for many of the journal platforms we subscribe to — although “cost per use” can be a crude measure, we’re getting much better value out of our e-resource subscriptions now

All of the above tells me that Summon is doing all the things we originally bought it for and that the relevancy ranking is schmokin’!

“Yes”, there’s still a place for Information Literacy in all of this, and, “yes”, we need to be able to support researchers and Boolean Buffs, but the majority of students just want to whack in a few keywords and quickly find something that’s relevant — if you select a product that allows them to do just that, they will come 🙂

  1. Dave Pattern said:

    Just a couple of follow on comments…

    Discovery Services don’t replace subject databases, but they give you an opportunity to let first year undergraduates easily find articles without have to know how to search a dozen different database interfaces. Chances are they’ll be discovering articles on most of the major databases for their subject, which means it’ll be less of a culture shock when you start showing them how to search the database’s native interface directly.

    So, does that mean a Discovery Service is a dumbed down product, not suitable for researchers and academics? I’ve heard this argument a few times, but anecdotally, the researchers and academics I’ve spoken to mostly seem to Summon as just one of their research tools. In the same way students are sometimes told that Wikipedia can be an OK place to start (i.e. read the article and follow the reference trails and external links), Summon is a good starting place to see what’s out there on a specific topic — find yourself some good articles and then chase the citations and references.

  2. Aaron Tay said:

    I agree that the defaults (stemming on, relevancy ranking, search on full-text etc) should favor supporting the masses “The needs of the many….” but Maybe it’s the librarian in me that wants every option, but what harm is there to including some additional options to give advanced users more control/options?

    I suppose one concern would be that if not properly done it can mess up the clean interface. The other I can think of is the resources needed to support it would not be trivial and would distract from the main purpose.

    Web Scale Discovery services are so powerful in the way they bring everything together, can you blame us librarians and advanced searchers who want to use the aggregated data to do more fun stuff? I was thinking for example that the more full-text gets into Summon, the easier we can use it to study interesting patterns (not quite datamining though) which would require exact control.

  3. Dave Pattern said:

    Hey Aaron!

    I think that’s the tension we face — many of the systems we have in libraries were designed (or at least specified) by librarians for librarians. If library users wished to use those systems, they had to become “mini-librarians” 😉

    For example, libraries took the card catalogue and turned it into the OPAC. Although relevancy ranking has been around since the 1950s, we didn’t want it in the OPAC because that wasn’t how the card catalogue worked — instead we wanted to browse a list of results sorted alphabetically by title, by year of publication or by accession number.

    Here at Huddersfield, Dr Steven Pollitt, a member of the academic staff offered to build the library a faceted interface to the catalogue back in the late 1990s, but sadly the library management said “no thanks, that isn’t how we search the catalogue”.

    Let me play Devil’s Advocate here — do libraries & librarians insist on having features that they attach too much importance too? Why else would we insist on having a MARC view in the OPAC? Why else would we insist on support for Boolean, even when it makes popular books like “Oranges are Not the Only Fruit” nigh on impossible to find? (Perhaps we should have told authors NOT to use Boolean operators in their book titles?!)

    To be OR NOT to be? That is a Boolean question! 😀

    I think the Web Scale Discovery services are one product where we need to reign in our lust for features, and concentrate on ease of use and kick ass relevancy ranking. Yes, let’s add some advanced features for power users, but only if they don’t impact upon that all important ease of use 🙂

  4. “what harm is there to including some additional options to give advanced users more control/options?”

    People don’t navigate the Web rationally; they do it on feel. You clutter up an interface with the delusion that people who “don’t need” all the features will ignore them and you’ll find that people just ignore the library website and head to Google. (Oh, wait. We’re already doing that.)

    In her book The Art of Choosing, Sheena Iyengar talks about a study she ran on choice in the mid-’90s. The study proposed the hypothesis that the presence of choice sounds great in theory, but in reality many options can be debilitating. I see this every time I run a usability test and a patron ends up on a terrible vendor interface.

    Not to mention that letting you tweak the twiddly bits is not what the discovery service is for. If you want to show off with your Boolean operators and your 40 gazillion options, go search the native database interface. That is your advanced search.

  5. Ian said:

    Or, to put it another way, if a Discovery Service looks like a journal database and acts like a journal database, then it probably is a journal database and not a Discovery Service.

    That is the #2 reason why I dislike Ebsco Discovery Service… It looks like an Ebsco database… it behaves sort of like a halfway house – google like search box BUT forces you to login to search + it seems to have some stop words that make the results go haywire.

    #1 reason = duplication of results
    I have never had a user (faculty or student) come to me and say I wish this database had more advanced search options… I have had faculty come to me and say “why is it so @#*&$ hard to search across these 10 vaguely connected in my mind only subject areas”… Just say no to advanced search 🙂

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