Welcome to the November 2015 “First Tuesday” feature. On the first Tuesday of every month we feature a one-on-one discussion with a person behind one of the previous month’s Best of the Business Web e-letter selections whom we felt would be particularly interesting to talk to.
This month we have chosen Tara Calishain, the creator and editor of ResearchBuzz, one of our favorite blogs for doing better online research. We chose ResearchBuzz as one of our September 2015 Best of the Business Web selections, describing it as “lively, fun and extremely informative.”
The following is an edited summary of our email-based discussion with Tara.
Q. Tell me a bit about your background--are you an MLS? Have you worked in libraries?
A. I am not an MLS. I have no college diploma. I am a high school dropout; the only letters you will see after my name are GED.
However I have a great respect for what it takes to get an MLS so I make it clear whenever anyone asks that I am not a qualified librarian. My mother got her AAS in library science initially, and then in the 90s got her BS and then MLS. I saw the work she had to put into it and it's no joke! Librarians, be proud of your MLS.
My mother was a librarian and my grandmother worked in a book bindery, so books are in my genetics somewhere, but nowhere in my long, strange career path have I worked in a library. I did start on the Internet very early, and equally early became fascinated with the problems of organizing and finding things online.
Q. What led you to begin ResearchBuzz back in 1998? What problem were you hoping it would solve?
A. I started ResearchBuzz after I wrote the 2nd edition of Official Netscape Guide to Internet Research. I wasn't trying to solve a problem so much as continue the process of keeping up and covering search resources that I find interesting.
Q. Who do you think reads ResearchBuzz?
There are a lot of librarians, journalists, and teachers. But it's all over the map because the resources I mention are all over the map. I don't care what you do for a living, if ResearchBuzz helps you out, that's awesome!
Q. How, if at all, has the primary mission/focus of ResearchBuzz changed over the years?
A. Early on I did a lot of coverage of how to use search engines better -- tricks and hacks you could use to make the most of advanced searches. (I mean hacks as in "nifty things", not hacks as in "bad things".)
I still do some of that but not as much. I make more of an effort to find and cover more university/ academic/government resources that might not get as much love. For example, I recently found out about a new database of languages in New Guinea. Now, that's amazing. New Guinea is one of the most linguistically-diverse places in the world, and a database of its languages is great news. But it's not one of those things that's going to get picked up by Reuters or covered in Mashable. That doesn't mean it's not important or useful.
There's a lot of wisdom online that says "do viral stuff" -- do stories which will get popular and lots of clicks and go all over the Internet. And if that's what you want to do, fine. But I want to link to things which inform you and occasionally make you laugh and HELP YOU. I want to put up a post which makes people go, "Oh man, I could use that for my project!" or "Wow, Sally could use that for her computer program!" or "Bill needs this for the medical research he's doing."
My dream job is this: being able to connect every resource I find with someone who can use it. That's all. There is so much going on out there; all kinds of people are out there busting their asses to build all kinds of things. I want them to get recognition, and I want their work to be used.
Q. Is there a certain topic related to effective Web research that you feel you need to revisit often because it is so important or commonly misunderstood?
A. Three things, if you'll indulge me:
1) THE INTERNET DOESN'T HAVE EVERYTHING: It just seems like it does. There are huge numbers of items which haven't been digitized, haven't been organized -- haven't even been found! Did you read about the library which, just this spring, found a trove of ancient Greek coins in its archives? There is still so much to do and so much to organize. It's early days yet.
2) THE INTERNET IS INCREDIBLY FRAGILE: A publication goes out of business and the archives vanish. Finito. Someone decides they don't want to do their blog anymore and so they stop paying their host, or they just take it down. Those archives are gone.
It's so heartening to hear more discussion about digital impermanence, to hear that the Wayback Machine is getting an upgrade, or to read about a library teaming up with a literary journal to house its archives. The problem of the impermanent Internet is only recently the subject of widespread discussion (librarians and archivists of course have been aware of it for years!) and it's a long way from being solved.
3) ALGORITHMS TOUCH EVERYTHING: My wardrobe does not include a tinfoil hat, but I am very troubled at how much algorithms control what I see. Facebook, for example, doesn't distribute a Page's post to everyone who likes that page. It uses a number of factors to determine how many people get a post. What are those factors? Facebook isn't tellin'.
Google controls what you see in its search results, and in what order, with other algorithms. What factors are included? There's a lot of guessing, but nobody knows for sure but Google.
I'm sure the rationale to keep these things secret is so that people can't game them. But there's SO much potential for abuse. Facebook has already admitted it manipulated user feeds for an experiment and research has suggested that social networks can fool people into thinking that things are common and popular when they're not.
Is it *that* big a step to imagine Facebook manipulating organic page reach in favor of a political candidate? Add to that the fact that Millenials use Facebook as a primary source of political news - - and can you see how much power Facebook holds on a lot of fronts, using distribution algorithms that are not in the least bit transparent?
Q. Do you remember a particular tip or strategy that you offered over the last few years that got lots of attention and comments?
In 2012 I created a Google Custom Search that searches official state, city, and county Web sites. Google had something similar but shut it down in 2011. You can read about it here.
In 2009 I wrote a quick article showing how to link to exact minutes and seconds in YouTube videos. That article remains ridiculously popular.
Q. What do you think is a hot topic now in Web search that people are finding tricky and are struggling with and looking for advice?
A. The biggest one, the thing that drives me crazy, is that there isn't a good podcast search engine. Every time you turn around you'll read a story about how popular podcasting is and how it's starting a new renaissance in audio blah blah blah. But there's no good search engine for finding podcasts! iTunes podcast search has always been awful. Podcasts are hot, everybody's listening, and yet there's no decent search engine. Why? It is not "sexy" enough? The Yo app managed to raise $1.5 million in funding and nobody can be bothered to make a decent podcast search engine. Things baffle me sometimes.
Q. What and who do you rely on as your own trusted sources for keeping up with trends and strategies in Web research and searching?
A. I use a combination of RSS feeds, social media monitoring (THANK YOU NUZZEL!) and Google Alerts to find the resources I cover. They're all important. And of course, ResearchBuzz readers send me tips when they find things, and I have friends on Facebook who tag me with resources.
I gave up trying to keep up with EVERYTHING on the Internet around 1996. It wasn't possible then so it's absolutely not possible now. But I hope what I am finding, and I am linking to, and I am talking about, is helping somebody out there. That's what it's all about, isn't it?