As a student today, you are living with more information at your fingertips than any previous generation. Just twenty years ago, students had to spend hours upon hours in libraries looking up physical copies of magazines and newspapers stored on giant rolls of microfilm just to find out it didn’t contain the information they needed and start all over again. Today, you can search thousands of articles in a matter of seconds.
As we learned from the Spiderman universe, though, “with great power comes great responsibility.” The ability to access thousands upon thousands of search results means that today’s students must be more analytical, more critical, and more careful than the previous generations when it comes to research.
In the past, most students were learning to do research from information that had already been curated by professionals. Librarians and teachers determined what were good, reliable sources, and students didn’t even see sources that were unreliable because they were never in the database or on the library shelves in the first place.
That’s no longer the case, and you may have access to more information than ever before, but you also have a great responsibility to judge it for yourself and to make careful decisions about what you will use to conduct research. The most important lesson for today’s researchers is knowing that Google can’t do all the work for you. While Google is an amazing and powerful search tool, it isn’t always reliable, and critical thinking skills are necessary to use it well.
What’s wrong with Google?
It’s not that there is anything wrong with using Google for research, but you need to know how the results are generated in order to make good decisions about what information you will trust and use.
First of all, you need to know how Google determines which search results make it to the top of the list. If you do a Google search, you will see a list of results that have gone through Google’s complex algorithms to determine the order in which they’ll appear. Most people choose a link from the first page of results, so links further down on the list won’t even be seen.
How does Google determine what goes on this list? Well, some of the links are actually ads, and the company paid to have them at the top. You can tell these are ads because they will be marked with the word “ad.” After that, Google uses a complex ranking system based on the page’s popularity (how many other people clicked on it), its links to other popular pages, and the words that it uses on the page. In addition, if you are logged in to a Google account, your own search and viewing history might influence what comes up first.
It’s really important for companies that want to sell things to be on the first page of results, so they’ll do all they can go get their websites ranked high on the list. This means that they try to figure out what words Google’s algorithms like the best and to use them in their posts.
The end result is that just because something comes up first doesn’t mean it is the best. In fact, you are very likely to see corporate material that’s designed to get users on pages where they can buy things, and that means that the people writing the content may be biased about the information.
What can you do about it?
The most important thing you can do when conducting web searches is to be attentive to what kind of information you are using. You want to ask yourself questions just like a reporter would:
- Who– Who wrote this? Do they have the authority to speak on this topic? Are they experts? Journalists?
- What– What kind of content is this? A news article? A blog post? An advertisement?
- Where– Where was it published? On a reliable and credible site like those ending in .edu or .gov? On someone’s personal blog? On a major news or magazine site?
- When- When was it published? Is it up-to-date? Is it relevant?
- Why– Why was it published? Does the page try to sell something? Does the author have a biased goal?
If you ask yourself questions about the information, you will often find that it’s not a completely reliable source. You’ll want to dig deeper and find information that you can trust.
At The Tenney School, we strive to give today’s students the tools they’ll need to navigate the complex information they’ll encounter now and in the future. We give them the critical thinking skills necessary to make choices for themselves.