What to Know About Query Expansion in the Library

Technology | September 19, 2019

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Query expansion is not just affected by the search technology in place, but by the end-user’s experience and knowledge. Read more in EBSCOpost.

Search technology can feel like an enigma. How a database or discovery platform works on the “back-end” changes from vendor to vendor and behaves differently based on the user of the platform (think beginner researcher versus a tenured professor). It can also change based on how the administrator has configured the search experience. How people search, their search behavior, and what they expect out of search is continuously explored, researched and discussed. One major component of search is query expansion, which looks at how to improve retrieval performance of information expanding the intent of the user and their initial query. The way in which a library enables query expansion can change the research trajectory of a library user.

Search habits differ based on the researcher. Factors like experience, verbal and cognitive ability influence the search query of a library end user. For example, many library users who are new to an area of study may not be using the “correct” search terms. If users don’t know the most effective key word for their search, they will miss important content or discover content that is irrelevant. For example, the word “taxonomy” could have different meanings if a user is interested in content within Library Science, Education or even e-commerce. Even unfamiliarity with synonyms or related terms can leave a researcher toward a dead end.

The hard work falls on the search technology to decipher, determine and deliver the right information to the end-user and this is where optimal query expansion is a necessity.

Search queries can also resemble questions that an end user may have for the reference desk pasted into the search box. Regardless of the difference in environment, users expect “human expertise” to be present in their search results. Today’s searches are reflective of natural language rather than an “academia-based” search. That means the hard work falls on the search technology to decipher, determine and deliver the right information to the end user; this is where optimal query expansion is a necessity.

Enhanced subject precision is a type of search technology that improves query expansion. Enhanced subject precision combines the best of technology and human expertise, resulting in a hand-crafted search index that utilizes mapped vocabulary terms from multiple sources to add precision for topical searches. A user’s search term is matched to a known concept to present search results in the most relevant order. Popular search queries are mapped to increase opportunities for additional terms that a user may not have known, helping to expand their query in ways they could not have done on their own.

As Rhianna Jones at IFIS Publishing notes, “Indexing enables you to find concepts and synonyms indicated by the keywords you search, helping you to discover library content and making it more likely that the whole record will be relevant.”

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