Everybody does it. It’s fast and it’s easy. You have a question you need to answer and Google makes it so simple to get information. We get it. We can get lazy, too. We love the instant gratification of typing in a few words and within a couple of clicks, we have something to work with. The catch is that this might be OK if you’re looking for home decorating ideas or the hours for the local driver’s license office, but it’s not enough when you’re a college student. If you care about upping your academic game, the best thing you can do is break yourself of this habit.
We’re referring to Google because it’s the most commonly used search engine in the U.S., but the information here applies to nearly all search engines. There are a few specialty ones that work differently, but chances are good that you’re not using one of them. Google, Bing, Yahoo, and Ask, the four largest search engines in the United States, all work essentially the same way.
How do search engines work?
In order to understand why search engines might not be the best tool for academic information, it can be helpful to learn a little about how they work. Search engines are computer programs that look for words on webpages and create an index of these webpages based on the words they find. The program works by having the software follow links around the internet; the software robots are called spiders, which is how the internet came to be known as the World Wide Web or just Web. As the spiders crawl the web and visit links, sites that have more links to them typically get higher rankings in the search results. Search engine software programs may index only the page title, headings, links, and most common words on the page, so sites designed to maximize the search engine’s indexing capabilities are likely to get higher rankings in the search results. Some search engines also use indirect indexing methods, in which the software infers what is on the page based on links to it, rather than the spider actually going to the page and retrieving words to use to build the index. The point to this is that the search results that you get might not be based on factors that are useful to you and your information need.
It’s all about popularity
One of the factors driving search results with most search engines is popularity. Trending stories, items for purchase, and celebrity endorsements are a few examples of factors that can make a particular site or page more popular. Academic topics are not likely to get a push from these influences, so unbiased, reliable information is unlikely to be on the first page of search results.
Search engines only have access to pages that are publicly available on the internet, and this only makes up a small percentage of what is online—in fact, probably less than 1%. A lot of the internet requires a login to access the information (a lot of what you can access on the SCC site is only visible to you after you log in to EICConnect, for example), or requires a paid subscription, and a lot is only available with specific software. Some sites or pages are deliberately coded so that they are not indexed by web crawlers. Google and other search engines only index what is referred to as the surface web, and the deep web, not accessible to standard search engines, is estimated to be 400-550 times larger than the surface web.
We don’t all get the same search results
In addition to the limited access to information, our search results are impacted by all of our internet activity. This is known as the filter bubble. Whenever we use the internet, sites deposit small amounts of information in our web browsers. This is done to customize our experience, so that when we return to a website, our login pops up automatically, and the ads we see are tailored to us based on other things we look at online. Have you ever shopped for an item on one site, then seen an ad for that item as you looked at another site? This is due to the cookies left in our browser memory. Search engines take this information into account when retrieving your search results and weight your results accordingly. Unless you use incognito functions in web browsers or clear your cache and cookies each time you search, you will not get the same search results as your classmates. You can try this out for yourself by running a Google search on your computer, and then running one on a friend’s computer. If they have different interests than you do, the search results will be different. It’s especially eye-opening to try the search on a controversial topic and search the computer of someone who has different political beliefs than you do!
Databases are more efficient and effective
Here’s the reality: you are likely to find better information more quickly and efficiently searching in the right database. Our databases are collections of articles, ebooks, and films with educational value, indexed without bias. There are simple ways to determine whether the item is scholarly, peer reviewed, or written for a general audience. Items in the databases have typically been selected for their academic value (but be aware that not everything in the databases is appropriate for each type of assignment).
Why does all of this matter? Google is great for a lot of things, but using it for academic research is not a winning strategy. When you use Google for searching, you’re trusting software that is designed to make money by finding the most popular links and finding you results that you’ll probably like based on your previous searches. When you use a library database, you’re trusting software that is designed to help you retrieve relevant material, much of which isn’t even available through Google.
At the SCC Library, our staff is happy to help you determine the right type of information source for your assignment and help you locate articles, ebooks, and films in our databases that can be used for your research. We also have physical books and journals in the library we can help you find. We know all kinds of search strategies to help you find what you’re looking for. We know how to sort and filter search results and find the best search terms, and we’re happy to help you learn how to search better, too. For most of your assignments, you will find better sources by starting with the library, which will save you time and help you be a stronger student. Work smarter! Be a better student! Use your library!
Hal, H. (2014). Web of Darkness. New Scientist, 221(2961), 44-45. Retrieved from EBSCOhost.
Iffat, R. & Sami, L. K. (2010). Understanding the deep web. Library Philosophy and Practice. Retrieved from Academic OneFile.
Pariser, E. (2011, March). Beware online “filter bubbles” [Video file]. Retrieved from http://www.ted.com/talks/eli_pariser_beware_online_filter_bubbles?language=en
Pariser, E. (2011). The troubling future of internet search: Data customization is giving rise to a private information universe at the expense of a free and fair flow of information, says the former executive director of Moveon.org. The Futurist, 45(5), 6. Retrieved from Academic OneFile.
Pariser, E. (2012) The filter bubble. New York: Penguin Books.
Sui, D., Caverlee, J., & Rudesill, D. (2015). The deep web and the darknet: A look inside the internet’s massive black box. Washington, D.C.: Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. Retrieved from https://www.wilsoncenter.org/sites/default/files/deep_web_report_october_2015.pdf