Google as a trouble-shooting tool

Posted by Pierre Igot in: Technology
October 26th, 2004 • 8:21 am

Damien Barrett gives a good example of the use of Google as a trouble-shooting tool. I too have been able to help people with technical problems that I had never heard of before, simply by searching for answers with Google.

Damien goes on to raise some questions about the importance of Google as a search engine and Internet tool. There are things that could be cause for concern, since Google is not regulated. But who should/could regulate Google? We are so far from having the supra-national structures that would enable such regulation that it is hardly worth raising the issue. The only “regulation” that will affect Google in the short term is competition.

Damien might also be guilty of overstating Google’s importance. It is a very handy tool for some tasks, but it can’t replace more specialized search engines for many trouble-shooting tasks. For example, for many Mac-specific trouble-shooting tasks, you have a much better chance of finding reports on similar problems with Apple’s own Discussions web site. This web site is far from perfect, but used properly, it can be quite useful.

For example, the other day, one of our iMacs (flat panel) at work started acting up, with kernel panics all over the place. I removed the extra RAM from the machine, but the kernel panics continued. I ran the Hardware CD on the iMac, and the hardware diagnostic was that there was a problem with the VRAM (video RAM). It didn’t sound too good. I then went to Apple’s Discussions web site and search for the phrase used by the Hardware Diagnostics tool in its report. I quickly found a few threads on the topic. Most of them advised sending the iMac for repair, with a logic board replacement as the likely outcome, but one reader mentioned that he had removed the PRAM battery for five minutes, put it back, and the kernel panics had disappeared. So I did just that: I opened up the iMac, removed the battery, waited five minutes, and put it back.

Not a single kernel panic since then. It sure beats a logic board swap!

Now, it might very well be that there is a problem with the VRAM. But it is also possible that the problem is not serious enough to cause on-going problems for this particular iMac and the way that it is being used. We’ll see.

In the mean time, all I can say is that Apple’s discussion boards have saved us several hundred dollars, and Google wouldn’t have helped in the same way, because the problem might be too specific. Although there are billions of web pages in Google’s index, it doesn’t have the answer to everything. Or if it has it, it is not necessarily found on the first two or three pages of results.

A professional trouble-shooter knows that he needs to have more than one tool at his disposal, no matter how good one of his tools happens to be. The “all-in-one” tool simply doesn’t exist, even though Google comes pretty close.

But when Damien mentions that he is puzzled when otherwise competent professionals are unable to find the answers by using Google themselves, I can only agree with him. In the general population, even among regular computer users, there is still this technological “aura” about the Internet in general and Google in particular. The other day, we were having a lively dinner conversation about all kinds of topics. At some point, someone started talking about a poet laureate from North California whose lived on a farm and raised goats (although his wife did most of the raising). Of course, my literary education is hopelessly Europe-centric, so I had no idea who he was talking about. He couldn’t remember his name. No one else at the table knew the name, including someone who had just completed his thesis in literary history.

After a few minutes of guessing, I quitely mentioned the fact that I could probably easily find the answer on-line with Google. I went to the other end of the room, opened up my PowerBook, and search for “poet laureate North Carolina goat“.

Sure enough, the third result from the top had the answer. I shouted the answer — which was the correct one, of course — and was immediately greeted with a round of applause and hearty congratulations. It was hardly deserved. Yes, there is an “art” of selecting the best series of key words and entering them in the right order for optimal results with Google, but it doesn’t exactly require PhD-level training! Still, the simple fact that I was able to find the answer so quickly, even though I knew nothing about the poet myself, was apparently impressive to most people around the table.

4 Responses to “Google as a trouble-shooting tool”

  1. J. King says:

    I’ve encountered this on several occasions:

    He: Do you know where to find [insert name of small utility software from ten years ago]?
    I: No.
    He: Are you sure? I really need to find it.
    I: Sorry.
    He: Damn it.
    *I sigh in exasperation and quickly check Google, whereby the first or second result yields what he needs*
    I: Here. [insert relevant URI]
    He: Thanks!

    I suppose I should be flattered that my acquaintances come to me for help, but… what if I’m not around? Basic search-engine querying skills are highly useful.

  2. Steel Buildings Diary says:

    I’ve always been cautious of Google since it indexes too much data. You can find thousands of credit card numbers and social security numbers. It can help you find anything you want and things that you probably don’t want others to find.

  3. Radardan says:

    Although I’ve been away from the “information trade” in a professional sense for a while, the field of Information Science calls this “search strategy”.

    Pierre, your genius was including “goat” I’ll wager <g> since coming up with the longest most specific list is the best goal.

    Let’s take a moment in salute to your local librarians: many are purveyors of information to all comers without prejudice.

    There are thousands of professionals with Information Science master’s degrees. One just doesn’t meet them in everyday life much.

  4. martin says:

    It’s the combination of general words (to get all the pages) and a key specific word (to narrow it down) that helps search the net. A lot of people just don’t get that. I’ve lost count of the number of trivial forum postings I have answered after spending 30 seconds with Google. It’s really really easy.

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