The bane of our previous generation was information scarcity. Our generation is plagued by its opposite extreme: information overload. There is information, lots of it, available on conceivably any subject, strewn across the Internet, like pearls at the bottom of the ocean. The unabated information explosion has resulted in an Internet which is mind-numbingly vast (To know just how big the Web is, see Notes below).
Information Retrieval (IR):
Keeping pace with the explosive growth of the Web, information retrieval has grown from a luxury to comfort to (bare) necessity. Borrowing Matthew Arnold's phrase from another context, "this strange disease of modern life" calls for increasingly sophisticated information retrieval (IR) systems to enable accurate and speedy retrieval of relevant information. Search tools like Google connect more than a billion people around the world with information every day (Notes will point you to more information on Internet usage statistics).
Limitations of IR Tools:
The rapid increase in the number of Internet pages has resulted in critical degradation of initial user benefits from search engine technology. Traditional retrieval strategies hence yield increasingly poor results with a low signal-to-noise ratio. Tools like Google can still, if correctly used, dig the depths of the Web and fetch finest quality information to you to a great extent. If correctly used!
With reference to the city-guide analogy, think of Google as the person you are hiring (albeit for free!) to do the dirty and tiring work of crawling the Web and fetching you just the information you need. For it to do its work satisfactorily, YOU need to tell it CLEARLY what it is that you want it to go looking for. Otherwise, there shall be a communication gap which will ultimately manifest itself in the (inferior) quality of results returned.
What You Can Do:
If it helps, imagine the Web as a database and your search string as the query you are using to retrieve specific information -- just like you would write an SQL query to SELECT information from an SQL Server database. The quality of your query determines the quality of your results.
For the communication (between you and Google) to be successful, you need to communicate your requirements in a language that Google understands best. The more YOU understand THIS language that Google understands best, the better your chances will be at letting it help you swiftly find the information you need.
Searching for information using Google is therefore an art. Not everyone is good at it. The good news is: it's a learnable trait; everyone can be good at it with the above understanding and some practice. The quality of your life (let alone career) will depend to a non-trivial extent on your ability to harness the power of such tools to find and get what you need... fast enough. Go ahead and empower yourself by investing some time in learning how to search for information using Google well.
This July 2008 post from Google's official blog -- "We knew the web was big" (http://googleblog.blogspot.com/2008/07/we-knew-web-was-big.html) -- puts the number of unique URLs on the Web at one trillion (1,000,000,000,000)!
Internet World Stats (http://www.internetworldstats.com/stats.htm) has lots of Internet usage stats. For example, Internet's population penetration is estimated to be about 1.5 billion (out of about 6.5 billion).
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