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Why use Google when a better, more accurate, and more powerful "search engine" exists?

Raise your hand if you've ever done this:
  1. At a programming forum that you regularly visit, you see a post asking for help
  2. The post describes a situation that you may not intimately familiar with, or that you know has been covered elsewhere many times, and it is clear a quick Google search will find a good answer.
  3. So, you think of some good key words, perform a few quick searches, examine the results, and determine which of your findings is a good answer for the person asking for help.   It doesn't take too long, only a few minutes or so.
  4. You then post a response to the user with the URL of the page that provides their answer.  There may even be a few different pages that have good info, so you might even provide a few good links for them. 
  5. Alternatively, you might even summarize the findings yourself and provide a solution that doesn't even require for the user to visit a web page. You may even incorporate some of your own thoughts and ideas on the topic based on your experience.
Anyone who ever tries to help or share knowledge in a programming forum probably finds the above familiar. I think we've all done this.  As I wrote here, often the people who are "smart" and "intelligent" and who "know all the answers" are really just the people who aren't too lazy to read manuals or help files, or to do simple internet searches. 

The other day, after once again going through this process, it got me thinking ... just what the heck is happening here?  Who is really the intelligent person in this scenario?

I mean, think about it:  Many of us have learned where and how to find answers, and we check reference books or help files or do web searches, and we read and interpret the materials and eventually find the answers we need.  It is not always easy -- sometimes we need to read through different books, or try different search terms, or read lots of lots of text just to get that quick and often simple answer.  We are quite proud of this and consider ourselves much better off for knowing where to find answers on our own. 

However, consider the other side of the equation.  Why bother with Google, or help files, or programming manuals, when you don't need to?  Why not simply use the most intelligent search tool that exists?  A search engine that flawlessly parses your (mostly) English sentences (and politely asks for clarification if it cannot!), knows how to pick out key search terms, checks all kinds of varied and sometimes obscure resources, and then actually reads and interprets  those resources to provide perfect links to web pages for your needs -- often with extra information and instructions and logically derived guidance and advice!

Who wouldn't use that tool if it were available?  Well, guess what -- it is!

This amazing search engine is: People like you and me!

Are the "newbies" really that clueless? Or are they using the best technology available to quickly get amazingly accurate and detailed results?  Why bother with Google when someone else is willing to do it for you?  Why go through dozens of search results when someone else will do it for you?  Why ever learn how to find anything when you never need to?

Don't misunderstand me -- this does not apply to all forums and all people asking questions.  Many, many questions really are appropriate for a forum, and the answers may be subjective or subtle or require some "back and forth" to determine the best course of action.  Those questions make sense, are fun and interesting to read, answer and debate, and they provide good knowledge for all involved.  It questions like "what does the SUBSTRING() function do?" and "how to check for null?" that I am referring to.

I often feel that these folks know perfectly well that Google is out there, and how it works, and how to access help files and documentation -- but they are much more practical, and much craftier and efficient than you or I!  Why bother with a mechanical, stupid search engine that requires "lots of work" when there exists an amazingly intelligent and accurate resource that you can use instead?

Perhaps the real question is: how much good is it really doing when we blindly do the legwork for others?  How does this affect/benefit the overall community that the forum of our choice serves?  Are we really training and guiding those who are working hard to be a positive and contributing part of the community, or are we weakening it overall by enabling those that probably don't have what it takes to be members in the first place?

Maybe best response to some of these questions is really:

"You have two options: learn how to find the answer on your own, or find another line of work that does not involve programming computers in any way."

Wouldn't that be the most productive answer for all involved in the long run?  Can someone who doesn't have the diligence or skill to find answers on their own ever really succeed in this line of work?

(Update:  A follow-up has been posted here.  It might be helpful to read that first before commenting ... )

Print | posted on Thursday, January 17, 2008 2:56 PM | Filed Under [ Miscellaneous ]

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# re: Why use Google when a better, more accurate, and more powerful "search engine" exists?

right on jeff!
that's why i've decided to first ask newbies for what they tried to search already and if they don't answer i ignore them.
maybe that's a bit harsh of me but come on... why bother...
1/18/2008 10:09 AM | Mladen
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# re: Why use Google when a better, more accurate, and more powerful "search engine" exists?

"You have two options: learn how to find the answer on your own, or find another line of work that does not involve programming computers in any way."

I prefer the age-old "RTFM" myself
1/18/2008 10:40 AM | van
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# re: Why use Google when a better, more accurate, and more powerful "search engine" exists?

LOL! Excellent post!
1/18/2008 10:59 AM | Adam Machanic
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# re: Why use Google when a better, more accurate, and more powerful "search engine" exists?

Interestingly just yesterday I stumbled upon a SQL server/SMO issue that stumped me. I searched google, I searched google groups, I searched the MSDN, I emailed people whose knowledge I respect, and nada.

So I posted my first ever question to a technical forum, MSDN's SQL/SMO forum.
(link)
And nothing.
I assume because the answer isn't out there in google. It did make me wonder this morning if people only ever answer on forums because thy bothered to look up the answer on google (when more complex than what does SUBSTRING () do obviously!)

Anyway, enjoyed your little rant.
1/18/2008 11:17 AM | piersy
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# re: Why use Google when a better, more accurate, and more powerful "search engine" exists?

You hit the nail right on the head, Jeff. I've often wondered why I tend to only answer questions on forums and mailing lists rather than asking them. Maybe I should reconsider this altruistic approach and use my time answering my own questions.
1/18/2008 11:32 AM | Darton Williams
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# re: Why use Google when a better, more accurate, and more powerful "search engine" exists?

Wow, I never thought of this way, but it sounds amazingly true. Bravo.



1/18/2008 12:31 PM | JD
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# re: Why use Google when a better, more accurate, and more powerful "search engine" exists?

Errr... Google is the best at this point. End of story.
1/18/2008 12:36 PM | none
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# re: Why use Google when a better, more accurate, and more powerful "search engine" exists?

Ok, I read that artical. I rarely use fourms because it takes forever to get an answer. So if people don't want to use Google, *uck em!
1/18/2008 12:48 PM | none
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# re: Why use Google when a better, more accurate, and more powerful "search engine" exists?

"How much good is it really doing when we blindly do the legwork for others? How does this affect/benefit the overall community that the forum of our choice serves?"

Have you ever searched for the answer, and found it on some other forum? Or found a discussion of that issue on another forum? If you post a bunch of URLs and a few useful comments to a forum, then you are increasing the value of the internet. That's right, you just added value. So the next time someone like you actually goes out to find an answer to the same question, there is a chance that they will find your answer. And if they are answering the same question on a forum somewhere, they can now post one link to your answer, instead of having to post the multiple links that you posted. And the person who linked to your post has now increased the rank of your post in google, making it more likely to be found if someone else does a similar search.
1/18/2008 2:54 PM | andy
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# re: Why use Google when a better, more accurate, and more powerful "search engine" exists?

Besides RTFM, there is the WDYDYOH, Why Don't You Do Your Own Homework, source of most of the questions that seem too easy to people with experience.

For some things, like *nix system calls, Google works just fine.

But for some other things, it's pretty tough. I've gotten some error messages whose only online references seem to be six year old posts to a software support forum, and the only responses to the post are, "That happened to me, too. Does anyone know why?"

Sometimes I can sweat out the answer, sometimes not, and I have to hit forums, IRC, newsgroups, feeling just as dumb as a freshman who doesn't know what a FOR loop.
1/18/2008 3:39 PM | Bobby The Programmer
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# re: Why use Google when a better, more accurate, and more powerful "search engine" exists?

Saw your site on Reddit. A little slow are we? Most of us have known this for a long time.

Your "learn how to find the answer on your own" strategy is most certainly appropriate, and it helps immensely if you're an asshole (which, as you may be able to tell, I am). However, if you are a fan of that warm fuzzy feeling you get for helping somebody, a healthy compromise would be to link to google and ask them to perform a search on whatever keywords you would have searched on.

It's come to my attention that a lot of people don't search Google because it didn't occur to them, they don't know how to search properly (eg unaware that site: limits searches to one site), or they don't know what search terms to enter. They'd probably search if they knew - I mean, it can takes time to actually craft a paragraph of text that resembles English, register and post on one (or several) forums, and then wait for a response. Compare that to a Google search, which is instant.

Even if you manage to convince these people to search Google instead of increasing the signal to noise ratio on your favorite forum, you'll still have people asking these questions because they have trouble judging the relevance, importance, and authority of the sites in their search results. In short, they are overwhelmed by the results and don't know which site's advice to follow. My answer is: "Back up your data, try each one, and tell us which one works the best, buddy".

1/18/2008 3:50 PM | guy from reddit
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# re: Why use Google when a better, more accurate, and more powerful "search engine" exists?

Andy --

Good response, but remember: This search engine benefit that you mention doesn't help those that don't use search engines!

- Jeff
1/18/2008 3:56 PM | Jeff
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# re: Why use Google when a better, more accurate, and more powerful "search engine" exists?

Yes, it's a bit annoying but you're not answering just that one person's question, you're also answering the same question for all the people who wanted to know but never asked, or would have asked you the same question a year from now. In fact, your answer may become the source of what Google will return to them when they work out how to use it. It's also one way to be known as some kind of expert.

And no-one is making you answer a particular question, right?

~Matt
1/18/2008 5:23 PM | Matt Doar
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# re: Why use Google when a better, more accurate, and more powerful "search engine" exists?

The cleverest people have always had other people do their legwork for them. Its not what you know but who you know and who you know who knows an answer. Successful business men are politicians rather than intellectuals.
1/19/2008 3:58 PM | David
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# re: Why use Google when a better, more accurate, and more powerful "search engine" exists?

Completly agree with David...

Besides if it wasn't for those folks who post these "simple" type questions then we'd have no google that indexed all of these answers. Your post kind of contradicts itself in that you state why don't people just do some google searching or some web searching or reading an article that might help with a question. Well all of these articles, posted answers in forums, and search engines would have no answer to any such question if it was never asked.

As David says, its who you know not what you know..especially in this day and age.
1/19/2008 4:47 PM | Jon
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# re: Why use Google when a better, more accurate, and more powerful "search engine" exists?

That's the reason why i often answer with links to google searches with the right keywords in, or sentences like: "search the manual for $foo". A simple "use google" or something like that is no help, i think most questioners will have tried a google search before, but don't know how to search right. So i'm not doing all the work for them, just giving a good help and showing them how to do it right the next time.
1/20/2008 3:10 AM | another anonymous one
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# re: Why use Google when a better, more accurate, and more powerful "search engine" exists?

Jeff, I am a regular vistor to your blog site and sqlteam.com. I daily visit the site (sqlteam) and see what kind of questions come up in the forums. I also visit replies given by sql gurus like you and others like madhi,visakh16,peso,tkizer to name a few. I have posted few queries of mine also and some may have been absolutely beginner level. The reason for posting those was like mentioned in one of responses, I was overwhelmed with the reponses google gave to me. When you are new to something, you would like to get help from person who knows it well. I have posted couple of replies to forum posts. This would not have been possible if I would not have got knowledge of SQL by reading replies on the forums, reading SQL books and with my experience,ofcourse.I agree that many a times there are stupid questions asked which are easily searchable in BOL. Like mentioned in one comments above, you need replies to these silly questions to be see when searched on google.So, please bear with some of the silly questions and help people getting best answer from best people on web to answer them.Thanks and regards to all who are helping newbies on sqlteam.com.
1/21/2008 12:33 AM | sunil
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# re: Why use Google when a better, more accurate, and more powerful "search engine" exists?

Interesting.
In the past, I've assumed that these helpful people out there, posting snippets of code and answering questions, either do it for fun, or in the case of some Q&A forums, I've assumed they are getting paid in some way.

In the SQL world, I feel that there is an answer for pretty much every question, already online in some form or another, and if logic can't help out after that... it's too bad for the person requesting that data.
There is always a way to do or get what you want. I've learned this. It's just a matter of digging, thinking harder, or restructuring.

My point is that the people who don't take the time to understand the basics of their own level of expertise, will never get the gist of everything they are working with anyway.
SQL code is only a fraction of the business puzzle, in any given situation, and if someone is taking the easy way out on that, it does not bode well for the company they work for, or anyone else involved with the project / affected by the data.
1/21/2008 11:47 AM | Lo
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# re: Why use Google when a better, more accurate, and more powerful "search engine" exists?

I doubt there are many, if any, newbies cyncically exploiting the forums. The questions may seem simple to you, but I think they are legitimate questions.

I've both asked and answered questions in forums. When I ask, I have tried many times to solve my own problem first. Not just because I want to, but it is more efficent and satisfying to figure it out on my own. As somebody said above, taking the time to craft a good question (ad I include sample code in mine) IS rather hard. Not a solution of first resort.

I answer posts partly as a way of paying back the community that has helped me, and partly because I'm curious to see if people have suggestions on how to improve my answer.

I understand frustration, and sometimes the answer seems to be as simple as "check BOL", but I think forums are a great resource and I hope you continue to participate.
1/23/2008 10:37 AM | Mike
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# re: Why use Google when a better, more accurate, and more powerful "search engine" exists?

This is a tricky one ... with so many advanced SQL minds here, perhaps what is screamingly obvious and totally kindergarten for you just truly isn't that easy for everyone? Perhaps y'all aren't the best judge of what is 'beginner' and what isn't?

Although I'll agree, 'what is substring()' is a fairly stupid question and I hope that person was told to go spend a bit of time with BoL.

As a beginner in your circles (but quite proficient in T-SQL for the reports I have to write), let me say that I'd appreciate (as much as the direct answer) examples that incorporate the answer. Sometimes BoL is a bit obtuse - just for fun, I'll look up things I know perfectly well and will get flummoxed by how BoL describes it (NOT plain English) and by the examples they use. Remember, technical writers usually write for other advanced-level people, not for what should be their true audience - those who came to the section to learn from scratch about the topic.
1/23/2008 10:41 AM | Sharon Matyk
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# re: Why use Google when a better, more accurate, and more powerful "search engine" exists?

As a new student just embarking on a career path to IT I may well be one of the people asking kindergarten questions. Generally, this is only after a thorough exploration of BOL, Google, "for dummies" books and anything else I can get my eyes on.

However, I think the "search engine" post misses the two most critical points of information sharing through forums/user groups. COMMUNITY and FEEDBACK. As part of a community of people who do what I hope to do, I hope to benefit from their experience and willingness to share information. At the same time, I learned a long time ago that I learn more and become better at what I do by teaching others. No one knows a subject like the person WILLING to teach it to someone else.

Furthermore, getting a static answer is of limited benefit. Frequently answers found in manuals are rarely in the context of the problem, question or issue I have. Example, in my effort to fully understand VIEWs in SQL Server 2005 (I said I was a newbie) I learned a great deal from an article found in this forum. But I LEARNED A GREAT DEAL MORE FROM THE DISCUSSION WHICH FOLLOWED.

Share the knowledge we gain benefits us as well as those we share it with. I'm grateful for those who reply to my questions, and even more so for those who comment further with their two cents. I'm also glad that I am happy to knock myself out looking on my own first. I want to benefit from the learning. I can't imagine that I would go far in my new career if I expected answers to be handed to me on a platter!

And... if you arent' willing to share your experience why are you here?
1/23/2008 4:32 PM | Nick Meszaros
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# re: Why use Google when a better, more accurate, and more powerful "search engine" exists?

Excellent post Jeff.

The most frustrating thing to me is when I come across a forum message asking for help and I type the subject line into Google and the first link is an answer to their problem. In those cases I often just paste the Google link into the forum.

To those who say that they've read the manual or Googled the problem and are still asking what to us is a simple question I say, you had darned well better document that up front or you're not likely to get anything useful back. To say it another way, if you are asking a question and aren't bothering to tell us what you have already tried, then you are likely to get back a list of those things you've already tried - wasting both your time and ours.

In the end I've found that forums only tend to be useful to me when I'm first learning something. Once I've passed beyond the simple stages I find that forums tend to get less and less useful since fewer people are willing to help with the truly difficult problems (which might take significant time just to understand the problem). I'm not saying that nobody helps, but unless the forum is extremely low volume the chances of your request being seen by that 1% that is willing to help answer advanced questions you more often than not just get lost in the noise. That has, at least, been my experience.
2/5/2008 7:12 PM | Scott Gartner
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# re: Why use Google when a better, more accurate, and more powerful "search engine" exists?

I doubt there are many, if any, newbies cyncically exploiting the forums. The questions may seem simple to you, but I think they are legitimate questions.

I've both asked and answered questions in forums. When I ask, I have tried many times to solve my own problem first. Not just because I want to, but it is more efficent and satisfying to figure it out on my own. As somebody said above, taking the time to craft a good question (ad I include sample code in mine) IS rather hard. Not a solution of first resort.
2/11/2008 1:01 PM | Dijital Fotoğraf Makinesi
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# re: Why use Google when a better, more accurate, and more powerful "search engine" exists?

um sorry but correct me if i'm wrong? you are asking Why use Google when a better, more accurate, and more powerful "search engine" exists? And in your post you eventually end up saying you SHOULD use google but DIY...????????????? does this make sense to anybody? or is it just me? this does not make sense... you didn't answer anything. just went on about a few topics.
11/10/2008 3:50 PM | Jonathan
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# re: Why use Google when a better, more accurate, and more powerful "search engine" exists?

google is good.
2/1/2009 9:56 AM | matthew laverick
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# re: Why use Google when a better, more accurate, and more powerful "search engine" exists?

BECAUSE GOOGLES MoRE POPULaR!!
3/6/2009 5:46 AM | Daniel
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# re: Why use Google when a better, more accurate, and more powerful "search engine" exists?

I always say to my family that “Google is your friend”. Especially my children who seem to be stuck on some no-name search engine at the moment.
I rarely if ever ask in forums to solve a current problem. If I have a problem I fire up Google on my comp or my wife’s comp if mine happens to be the problem. Either way Google is my first solution and sometimes my last if the answer is in the Search listing description :P
3/7/2009 3:09 AM | Eraserve
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# re: Why use Google when a better, more accurate, and more powerful "search engine" exists?

"Let me google that for you" is the answer.

Do I hear a question?
5/16/2010 10:30 AM | markus
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