Last Thursday, Google changed the way it displays results for users in an attempt to bring higher quality sites to the top, according to a Friday article from The New York Times. This move makes sense for the company. After all, for a search engine, giving users the best possible results is the top priority.
But let’s not fool ourselves: for students, this will make very little practical difference.
At the most basic level, search engines are very much just machines. They “crawl” the Web, finding pages and indexing them. Then, when a one inputs a search, the search engine puts it through an algorithm and displays pages in an order based on the algorithm scores.
What this means is that search engines are systems that can be gamed. If a website owner figures out the algorithm, or parts of it, all they have to do is figure out how to give their website the best possible score from the algorithm. Then the website will be displayed near the top of the search engine’s results. As long as the website manipulates the search engine’s formula effectively, it doesn’t really matter what the Web page is about or how credible it is.
For search engine users, and students trying to research in particular, this can be a big problem. Instead of helpful results, a search often will turn up a lot of worthless pages that, in reality, have very little to do with the original result or are completely unreliable.
So on its face it would seem that Google’s changes are great for students. Who wouldn’t want to get rid of bad results and bring up more good ones? The problem is that a search engine is still a machine run by a formula. As such, it can still be manipulated. It will just take some time for ways to manipulate the new algorithm to be figured out.
The quality of student research shouldn’t be dependent on such easily influenced tools. There is a responsibility on the student to be able to do effective research, including evaluating whether sites are credible or not without relying on how highly Google ranks them. Part of it is a learning process 8212; how do you determine whether sites are credible?
Luckily, most colleges have one or more classes that cover how to evaluate source credibility. I remember credibility being covered in my introductory English classes at TCU as well as in high school. Even if you didn’t get such instruction yet, there are some simple tips for finding more credible sources.
1. Check the Web address of the page you’re viewing. Sites that end in “.edu” and “.gov” are education and governmental sites, respectively, and more likely to be credible than “.com.”
2. Use library databases for research. TCU’s library site has well organized and easily searchable databases on almost every area of study. I have yet to run into a non-credible source from a library database.
3. Use Google Scholar. Similar to how Google Images just searches pictures, Google Scholar tries to just look at academic articles. Admittedly, it is still a search engine and prone to error as any search engine is. However, results from Google Scholar have a much greater likelihood of being credible than normal Google results.
Google’s changes certainly won’t be harmful. Until Web developers figure out how to manipulate the new algorithm, results should be better. But search engines are in a constant race of trying to keep ahead of those who want to game the system. Quality student research is our responsibility as students, and it should be a matter of pride to find good, credible sources.
Jason Lam is a junior mathematics major from Chicago.