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How Incorrect Information Delivers Correct Search Results: A Pragmatic Analysis of Queries

Jin Ha Lee and Allen Renear

(Submission #44)


Summary

The accuracy of the information that users bring to the search has been regarded as of primary importance for successful search results in studies of catalog uses and reference service. Especially for known-item searches in which users are trying to find a particular object, users’ incorrect information about the sought object is considered a serious problem, as even a single non-matching term combined using “and” in a Boolean search statement will result in a search failure. Incorrect information in users’ queries is therefore typically regarded as flaws or errors that need to be corrected in order to make the search successful. It is astonishing then, to observe that although (known-item seeking) music queries are frequently riddled with error they are nevertheless more often successful than not. How can this be so if incorrect information is the obstacle it is thought to be on standard accounts of information seeking?

In this paper, we suggest an alternative perspective based on our analysis of real-life queries. We argue that certain kinds of incorrect information can in fact be useful for particular search tasks, and propose that we should advance our understanding of how this works and how a better understanding of this phenomenon might improve search. We draw on real-life examples of human-intermediated music queries to illustrate our case, emphasizing the importance of the role of pragmatics of queries. (By pragmatics we refer to the area in contemporary linguistics that includes such topics as presupposition, perfection, conversational implicature, speech acts, and referential use of descriptions.) We show how findings from these areas help explain why it is that queries which appear to be semantically flawed are nonetheless successful, providing at least part of the explanation for why social networking and human mediated approaches often succeed where traditional approaches fail.

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