Searching the Internet through Google or another search engine can be a useful step in the search process. You can use it to:
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upload information to the Internet and some of the information that you find will be biased, inaccurate, misleading, or out of date.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.
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:
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:
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.
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:
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.
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 site:gov.au 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.|
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?
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.