Using Google

This video explains the benefits and drawbacks of using Google to find information.

Your professor just assigned a research paper and you’re not sure where to start. If you’re like me and millions of other people, you'll start by Googling your topic. Why do we go to Google first? Because it’s fast, it’s easy, and it’s free. But is the purpose of research to find the fastest, easiest answer?

Part of why we love Google is because it’s so easy to use. In fact, Google has become easier and easier to use over the years. Why is that? It’s because the developers behind Google are constantly fine-tuning the algorithm that runs it. When you do a search and get 30 million results, Google knows you don’t have time to look at every single result so it chooses what goes to the top of your results page based on a number of factors.

Think about the types of websites you normally click on. Every time you click on a search result you tell Google it’s doing a good job so Google will keep showing you the same kinds of results. This means that your search results are personalized. You and a friend can type the same words into Google on different computers and each get different results.

Google will make suggestions or even change your search query on your behalf if it thinks it knows what you want to see. Websites that load faster will move closer to the top of your results, even if they aren’t actually more relevant than other results.

What does this all mean? It means your Google results aren’t neutral. Google’s algorithm is designed to put you in what’s called a filter bubble. Your filter bubble prevents you from seeing the whole picture. It gives the illusion that your top search results are the websites that are most relevant to your search terms. But there could be many relevant websites that you’re not seeing because Google has filtered them out.

Maybe this aspect of Google seems helpful when you can’t remember how to spell a word or you’re trying to decide which new phone you want to buy. But how does Google’s algorithm affect academic research?

When doing research, you’re trying to find the answer to a complex question, like “what’s the best way to reduce gun violence in the United States?” Depending on the sources you consult, you can find hundreds of different answers to this question. It’s your job to construct an argument that address all aspects of your research question using the best information you can find. What would happen if you asked Google this question and just used whatever website was at the top of your results page?

Google might seem like a friendly, all-knowing robot that lives in the Internet. But Google is just like any other tool, and tools are designed by people to do specific tasks. So what is Google good for? Google is a great tool for finding recent news articles, or making purchasing decisions. But there are important points to keep in mind when using Google for academic purposes:

  • A Google search is a two-way street. You use Google to learn about all sorts of different topics. Google uses Google to learn about you.
  • Your search results are affected by your Internet activity and by lots of other factors that you can’t see.
  • You’re in a filter bubble. So always ask yourself, “Why did I get these results. What am I not seeing?”

And finally, just remember: when you’re doing research, it’s okay to start with Google. Just don’t stop with Google.