When Searching Goes Astray

Summaries of Research and Inventions from Science and Technology Journals

3 min read

Have you ever wondered whether search engines pay attention when you spice up your searches with Boolean operators, such as AND, OR, MUST APPEAR (+), PHRASE (""), and NOT? Well, apparently they don't--or at least they don't return much better results when you use them. Two researchers from the University of South Carolina and Pennsylvania State University investigated the effect that these operators had on the total number of documents retrieved, the number of relevant documents, and document ranking on Google, AOL, and MSN. They found that most of the operators had little positive effect. And that could be why only about 10 percent of searches bother with them. Don't, however, completely give up on your Boolean buddies. The researchers did find that the OR operator, as expected , was able to noticeably increase the number of hits on Google but not on the others and that using the PHRASE operator resulted in more relevant hits in general. Surprisingly, using the AND operator, which should narrow a search, actually increased the number of results returned by MSN.

Coverage, Relevance, and Ranking: The Impact of Query Operators on Web Search Engine Results , by C. M. Eastman and B. J. Jansen, ACM Transactions on Information Systems , October 2003, pp. 383--411.

High-Tech Cruisers

Being a cop in New Hampshire has become a bit easier thanks to some researchers at the University of New Hampshire. They noticed that although modern police cruisers were equipped with several cool gadgets, the gadgets weren't able to communicate with each other. Each device was placed in the car as a stand-alone device. For desktop users, multiple devices with slightly different interfaces can be annoying. For police officers in a high-speed chase, it can be dangerous. (Handling one gadget while driving, a cellphone, has already proved dangerous. Think of what happens when you have 12.)

Leveraging the fact that many of the devices in a typical cruiser were designed to be integrated with a computer, the researchers attached a head to all those limbs. The devices were hooked up to a PC, which coordinates them and lets the officer interact with them via a touch-screen display. Using the PC also enabled the researchers to add functionality that wouldn't be possible with stand-alone systems. With a few select commands, officers can even control their gadgets by voice. That may not sound like much, but in a high-speed chase, it's probably better that the officer doesn't take his eyes off the road.

Project54: Standardizing Electronic Device Integration in Police Cruisers , by A. L. Kun, W. T. Miller III, and W. H. Lenharth, IEEE Intelligent Systems , September 2003, pp. 10--13.

Transistor in a Thread

In a step toward wash-and-wear electronics, scientists at the University of Puerto Rico and the University of Pennsylvania have managed to fabricate transistors out of plastic fibers. The fiber polymers, polyaniline and polyethylene, are first dissolved in a solution and then doped with another chemical to make the mixture semicondcuting. The solution is placed in a syringe and forced out in an electric field. As the liquid evaporates, the fibers emerge and are collected and arranged to form circuits. The group's transistors are p-type (where the current is carried mainly by vacancies in the molecular structure called holes). Although thus far carrier mobility is low, making the transistors very slow, the group hopes to improve on it with more careful fabrication techniques.

Electrospun Polyaniline/Polyethylene Oxide Nanofiber Field-Effect Transistor , by N.J. Pinto et al., Applied Physics Letters , 17 November 2003.

To Search or to Browse

For those of you who spent the past month or so shopping online to take advantage of the holiday deals and new releases, we thought we'd let you in on a secret. It turns out that there wasn't an optimal method to find that perfect gift once you got to the store's Web site. Researchers from Rice University in Houston found that using a Web site's local search feature wasn't necessarily more efficient than browsing through their menus. The researchers studied several students who were familiar with computers and the Web to determine how people decide between using a search feature and using the menus that are provided. The students were influenced by a variety of factors in making their decision, but the site's design was important. Notably, users faced with larger menus were less likely to turn to the sites search engines.

Effects of Scent and Breadth on Use of Site-Specific Search on E-Commerce Web Sites , by M. A. Katz and M. D. Byrne, ACM Transactions on Computer-Human Interaction , September 2003, pp. 198--220.

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