Ambient Findability And The Google Economy

Ambient Findability, at’m only just getting into Peter Morville‘s Ambient Findability, but I’m eating it up. In trying to prep the reader to understand his thesis — summed up on the front cover as “what we find changes who we become” — Morville relates his difficulty in finding authoritative, non-marketing information about his daughter’s newly diagnosed peanut allergy:

I can tell you from personal experience that Google does not perform well when it comes to health. […] Google sent me to specialized sites such as, a shallow and grossly commercial web site pushing favored brands of nut free chocolate and soynut butter. Yahoo! and MSN didn’t perform any better. I did eventually find what I needed, but only by drawing on my advanced searching skills and familiarity with authoritive sources like the National Institutes of Health and the Centers for Disease Control. If I weren’t a librarian who lives on the Web, I would have failed to find the right answers.

But don’t mistake Morville. He’s not blaming the search engines, and he’s certainly not blaming himself, for failing to find the information he needed. He’s blaming the people and organizations responsible for collecting, gathering, producing, and archiving this information.

A few pages later, he talks about some consulting he did with the National Cancer Institute. It turns out that the organization’s web site got top rank for a search on “cancer,” but fell off the front page when Googling specific cancers like “prostate cancer” or “mesothelioma.” Anybody who understands the Long Tail probably already suspects that searches for “cancer” are hugely outnumbered by the sum of all the searches for specific cancers, and Morville spends considerable time on that. The real question, however, is why did the folks miss this point? The problem is that very few people understand “findability.”

Because, like so many other design teams, they viewed their responsibility from a top-down perspective. Can users find what they need from the home page? It’s an important question, but it ignores the fact that many users don’t start from the home page. Powerful search tools, directories, blogs, social bookmarks, and syndication services are moving deep linking and content sampling from the exception to the rule.

At NCI, the team had to look beyond the narrow goals of web site design, to see their role in advancing the broader mission of disseminating cancer information to people in need.

From where I sit, in a library, that means us too. As stewards of knowledge, it is our responsibility to make sure we catalog it in ways that optimize its availability and findability on the web. That means understanding the Google Economy and taking advantage of it.

If you’ve read this far, you definitely need to go order the book.