The “Google or Death?” choice for technical authors

July’s edition of Science magazine includes a study that shows scientific researchers are now more inclined to get their information from the Web (specifically, “quick and dirty” searches in Google) than from specialist scientific resources.

If scientists are focusing on only a tiny bit of research – the bits served up by Google – what are typical users doing?  Also, what does this mean for organisations whose user documentation or online Help is not available on the Web?

In the abstract for Electronic Publication and the Narrowing of Science and Scholarship  James A. Evans (from the Department of Sociology, University of Chicago) states:

” I show that as more journal issues came online, the articles referenced tended to be more recent, fewer journals and articles were cited, and more of those citations were to fewer journals and articles. ”

 “Searching online is more efficient and following hyperlinks quickly puts researchers in touch with prevailing opinion, but this may accelerate consensus and narrow the range of findings and ideas built upon.”

Evans’s research backs up JD Bernal’s concept of scientific information having a “half-life” :  with researchers citing fewer journals in favour of more recent articles, papers peak (in use and citation) and then decline, regardless of their usefulness.

This also suggests another consideration when publishing static content, such as user documentation: how do you keep it fresh and found?



Another question that springs to mind is whether or not I WANT my information to be found on Google.

Many of us write technical information for speciality products, those with a small market of known users, sold direct not on the shelf.

However even then Google is pervasive, as we have a search box of theirs running behind our technical developer website!


I’d agree with Gordon. Protecting our IP is as important to us as ensuring there is documentation.

Louis Marascio

This is going to be one of the bigger challenges for writers going forward, IMO. Users are being trained to use search engines to find answers and now social media is training users on new forms of interaction online. If your content is findable by then the answers contained within aren’t useful to the users. Moreover, when a user does find your content if they can’t interact with it the way they want to (providing feedback, sharing snippets, adding their own) then you risk, as a company, not engaging as effectively with those customers as you can, and ultimately, being seen as a “dinosaur”. Granted, this won’t happen over night, but it is happening now. I wrote about similar thoughts on the LugIron Software blog: Does Your Documentation Suck?.

Take care,


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