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Evaluating Online Resources and Effective Internet Searching

Why Google?

Searching the Internet through Google or another search engine can be a useful step in the search process. You can use it to:

  • find background information on your topic 
  • find effective keywords 
  • locate materials not often held within databases (such as reports). 

That you need to be careful goes without saying. Anyone can upload information to the Internet and some of the information that you find will be biased, inaccurate, misleading, or out of date. However, as long as you evaluate the information you discover, you may also find that you unearth useful information and different points of view, leading to a richer understanding of a topic than accessing academic content alone.   

Image: browsing computer by rawpixel Pixabay

What do I need to know about search engines like Google?

When you search using Google or other search engines (Bing, Yahoo, DuckDuckGo etc.), you are searching across all the content that is openly available on the Internet. Your results will not prioritise academic content. In fact, many journal articles, books and other academic sources are held behind pay-walls, so won't be included at all.

If an assignment instructs you to find peer-reviewed or scholarly sources, Google won't be the most appropriate place to look.  

In general, the following kinds of content remain hidden from search engines:

  • Sites that require registration, login, or are password protected (which includes almost all of the library's database content)
  • Sites that are deliberately excluded by their owners
  • Sites that are not linked to by other pages
  • Sites that require special software to access  

What type of website is it?

URL stands for Uniform Resource Locator and is the address of a webpage. You can check the URL of the webpage to determine what type of site the information is coming from: 

  • .edu signifies that the pages is created by an educational institution
  • .gov signifies that the page is created by a government department or body
  • .org signifies that the page is created by an organisation (usually a not-for-profit or charity) 
  • .com or .co signifies a commercial site 

The credibility of the information shouldn't be judged solely on the particular type of site it has come from. However, knowing the type of site can help put in context the information provided. 

Tips for effective Google searching

The biggest issue you are likely to face when searching through a search engine like Google is retrieving too many results. The most appropriate results may not appear on the first page, so it can be a good idea to use the following tips to improve your search:

Exact phrase

Imagine you're searching Google for cat walk, but instead of getting the results you want - those that discuss the gait of a cat - the front page is full of results about models and fashion.

Searching again for "cat walk" forces Google to search for the exact phrase and your results will immediately become a lot more relevant.

Search tip: enclose your search words in quotation marks.   

Exclude words

You may find that when you perform a search, many of your results contain certain themes or topics that you are not interested in. Current events can particularly impact your search results as those from news organisations tend to be ranked higher in Google search results. 

Let's say you were investigating the role of the media in the Brexit referendum on 2016. A search for role media Brexit returns a number of results focusing on social media. Searching again for role media Brexit -social will exclude these irrelevant results.

Search tip: type the minus symbol in front of the word you want to exclude.

Search within specific types of websites

When you perform a Google search, you're searching across the entire freely available Internet. That's not a very effective way to search if you're looking for certain kinds of information. 

Let's say you're looking for the prevalence of measles in Australia and you're particularly interested in information provided by the government. A search for prevalence measles Australia returns results from newspapers, organisations and blogs. Search again for prevalence measles will return results only for Australian government websites. 

Search tip: type site: followed by the type of website you wish to search within.

Search for specific file types (like PDFs)

The problem with using information from the open Internet in your assignments is that much of it can change at any moment. Resources like reports are much less likely to change and they tend to be made available in PDF format. 

Imagine you're interested in researching the jobs of the future. Much of the information you locate when searching for jobs of the future comes from sites that are trying to sell you something. Searching again for jobs of the future filetype:pdf returns reports, which are more likely to be credible. 

Search tip: specify file types you are interested in locating.

You will be able to locate all of these options (and more) in Google's Advanced Search screen. To locate the advanced search page, select Settings Advanced search from the Google homepage.

How does a Google search work?

Google uses a system called PageRank to order your results, choosing the 'most relevant' from the millions of potentially relevant websites. But how does the search work? 

  1. It all begins with crawling, an automatic process undertaken by Google that discovers content available on the web. A Googlebot (sometimes known as a spider) crawls the web, discovering new pages via links from existing known webpages, or via sitemaps that are submitted by website owners. 
  2. Once discovered, pages are then indexed by Googlebot, which creates an index of all the words located on the site and their location on each page. Particular attention is paid to metadata tags, with the highest value placed on the title of the particular page, followed by the description. These fields are recorded in the HTML code and will not always be seen by someone visiting the site. 
  3. When ranking results, Google takes into account the number of times a page is linked to and this is done by PageRank. PageRank takes into account the quality of those links, prioritising sites that are considered legitimate, like news organisations. Google also considers the user experience, so pages that load quickly and are mobile friendly are more likely to be featured. 

Personalisation of results

Google may personalise your results, based on your location, your browsing history and the kinds of searches you've performed before. The extent of this personalisation is not known and Google suggests that it has moved away from it after realising it's not helpful. However, there are studies which suggest that it's still very much in use. 

Personalisation is another reason you should exercise caution when retrieving information. It's not helpful if you are only seeing results that are more likely to support your established point of view on a topic.