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Publish Date: 4/4/2005

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Mary Ellen Bates is an information professional, a true “librarian’s librarian.” Bates is known for her ability to track down hard-to-find information. She has started her own business and teaches people and companies how to conduct better research and use different resources via the Internet. Times-Call/Erin McCracken

Search-engine savvy librarian shares some of her expertise


BOULDER — What so many single people want in a date — beyond a smile and a certain shape — Mary Ellen Bates wants in an Internet search engine.

She wants brains and values.

For information pros like Bates, anything less will cost her too much search time to make a living.

The Web, after all, now offers an estimated 50 million sites and at least 14 billion pages of information, Bates said.

This growing data tidal wave has forced the self-described freelance librarian to become more savvy about search engines.

According to the Alexandria, Va.-based Special Libraries Association, 85 percent of Fortune 100 companies employ information professionals.

But many companies don’t have such a pro on the weekly payroll.

So, business managers hire outside experts the way Old West sheriffs hired bounty hunters.

Bates gets her orders, flexes her fingers and then tracks down information in the nooks and crannies of computer databases and other places out of sight to most searchers.

Clients since 1991 have trusted her to dig up all kinds of data.

One hired her to find the most influential chiropractors in 20 cities.

Another asked her to identify the key manufacturers of acoustic highway barriers.

Information requests vary wildly, she said. But all her clients bank on making better decisions with better information.

Success secret

To get the job done, Bates long ago disposed of standard search engines.

Years of trial and error proved to her what a New York Times column headline announced in 2003: “Google is not God.”

In mid-March, she stepped 10 feet out of her messy home office in Boulder, plopped on her living-room couch and pushed that point.

Despite the hubbub caused by her two large, hyperactive dogs, Bates stayed focused.

“The secret is, you don’t do a Google search. You go to where the information is,” she said. “There’s the invisible web, and Google doesn’t have a library card.”

Her approach begins by recognizing that computer-assisted research falls into three categories — free Web sites, fee-based Web sites and value-added information services, which present and analyze information.

Searches on the invisible Web — sites search engines can overlook — take her straight to the source without all the filters search engines use.

For government data, she goes to sites such as www.firstgov.gov or www.gpoaccess.gov/index.html.

Other data and analysis can be found at fee-based, value-added sites, some of which — see www.factiva.com— integrate information from multiple sources.

What’s the big deal?

Sounds impressive.

But these days toddlers to tycoons surf the Web.

Bates nevertheless argues that free accessibility, while generally a good thing, can stymie searchers.

Google seems like a godsend to the average computer user because the search engine seems so endowed with artificial intelligence, she said.

At first blush, it seems to possess brains and values. Google fetches relevant results on the scantiest information, and has wowed the masses.

But Bates said that type of search may shortchange people more than they know.

In her October 2003 online column for EContent Magazine, www
.econtent.com, Bates wrote: “Compare the results of typing ‘Sydney tourist’ into Google with walking up to a librarian at a reference desk, looking her in the eye, and saying, ‘Sydney tourist.’”

The flesh-and-blood librarian would likely ask the patron to be more specific.

Google, by contrast, has conditioned the surfing public to scratch the surface.

They’re happy with a page or two of results that may be far from the most information-rich mark, she said.

“You can’t find much by just Googling,” Bates continued. “Google is a tenth of what’s on the Web. A tenth? A hundredth.”

She also noted that Google uses about 100 calculations to prioritize information.

Still, many search engines are vulnerable to “spamdexing,” she said.

Spamdexing happens when a Webmaster uses bogus keywords to attract search engines regardless of relevance.

For this reason, and a host of others, Bates mistrusts the free Web and often considers it a place of information anarchy.

The human touch

Bates refused to get lost in this anarchy. Instead, she abandoned it for the controlled information environments presented by directories.

Directories get her nod because a person, not a search engine spider, reviews them.

“A search engine spider is not creative,” she explained. “It doesn’t initiate or interact. They don’t type. So, anything that requires an ID or password, it will never show up. All a search engine spider knows how to do is to go to a page and search all its words.”

By contrast, hoards of volunteers frequently feed and weed directories under the Open Directory Project.

This is where Bates tends to hit pay dirt on her informational rovings.

She said top open directory sites include http://dmoz.org, http://en.wikipedia.org and even versions of mainstream search engines — http://directory.google.com/ and http://dir.yahoo.com/.

But for all her know-how, this cybrarian said success starts between the ears.

“Being librarians, we’re sort of used to not knowing everything,” Bates said. “It’s hard to get comfortable with that for a lot of adults. That’s the toughest barrier.”

Pam Mellskog can be reached at 303-684-5224, or by e-mail at pmellskog@times-call.com.

To use search engines edited by people, not spiders:

• http://directory.google.com/

• http://dir.yahoo.com/

To open U.S. government Web portals:

• www.firstgov.gov

• www.gpoaccess.gov/index.html

To enhance or edit the open directory:

• http://dmoz.org

• http://en.wikipedia.org

To discover domain name ownership:

• http://allwhois.com or http://www.whois.sc

To find information via free magazines:

• http://magportal.com/

For more information

Visit www.BatesInfo.com

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