Search engines have completely reshaped the way individuals obtain information, contribute to community discussions, and generally feel about events and happenings in the world around them. In a current climate where the concepts of free speech and dissemination of truthful or falsified information are at the forefront of every discussion, being able to search the internet and find reliable information are of the utmost importance. The internet is unlike anything else in its power to proliferate different ideas from different people in different places with different purposes, and search engines take this proliferation to unparalleled heights. The author of The Control Revolution, Andrew Shapiro, explained that, “[The internet is where the] freedom of speech will flourish [as] the net empowers individual speakers, allowing them to spread their views far and wide” (Arana, 2014). Not only is the sharing of information, the reliability of that information is equally important. The Executive Editor of the Washington Post, Martin Baron, stated publicly (amid the trending topic of ‘fake news’) that a functioning democracy simply cannot exist if the underlying society can’t agree on basic facts (Beville, 2017). Unreliable information does exist on the internet, requiring consistent access to reliable information to be informed democratic participants; however, search engines have made it easier than ever before for democratic participants to stumble upon untrustworthy information. Thus, we all need to be properly educated on how to use effective search techniques to harness the true informational power of search engines while also possessing a clear understanding of how to identify if an information source resulting from these searches is reliable or ‘fake news.’
When it comes to educating yourself about practices to make your search engine queries more effective, there are 5 techniques everyone should know: Proper word entry, quotations, inclusion and exclusion of specific words, using unknown/variable terms, and switching it up. Proper word entry simply means to make sure your spelling is correct, the search term is entirely lowercase, and that no stop words (common terms like ‘a’ and ‘the’) are included. If your query looks clean, concise, and deliberate, you should be good on tip number one. Technique two, quotations, concerns the syntax required to instruct the search engine to search a series of words as a single phrase rather than breaking those words up individually within the engine’s search algorithm; this is done by putting quotation marks (“”) around a chosen phrase. This technique is often helpful when you can remember a specific part of a phrase, title, webpage, or quote but are unable to find that information source through the same methodology. The third must-know practice is the inclusion and exclusion of specific words; this practice concerns how to tell a search engine to mandatorily include or omit a given word. The common syntax for this is a plus sign (+) for words that must be included and a minus sign (-) for words that must be omitted from the search results. Do note that this syntax can differ across search engine platforms, however, most sites include a syntax guide under their help page. What about those all too frequent times when you are unsure if a given word is the best fit for a search query? Fortunately, the fourth tip, using unknown/variable terms is all about the syntax symbols to solve this searching conundrum. For example, if you don’t know if ‘run,’ ‘jog,’ or ‘sprint’ is the proper term to use, you can use a tilde sign (~) before the given word to have the search include the word’s synonyms. If you are unsure of which words to include at all, you can use the star sign (*), and a space before it, after a word to tell the search engine to include any words or phrases the engine’s algorithm deems relevant. Furthermore, if you know information on a certain subject is available on a site, but you just can’t seem to locate it, you can try using a site search command that would look something like, site:nfl.com rules and regulations. The final technique is more of a word of wisdom than a syntax command. When you keep searching but are continuously disappointed with your results, switch it up. It is often recommended to set a time limit for your initial search that, when reached, you employ a completely different tactic like using a different search engine, asking a colleague for help, use a search expert service, or consult internet forums for trouble shooting advice (Norton, 2011). All five of these tips one their own will make you a better search engine user, but when used in conjunction, can dramatically improve the power of your search for information; however, as mentioned previously, engine results are only as powerful and useful as your ability to correctly determine their trustworthiness.
A large part of the internet’s value comes from the ability of anyone to contribute to the mass of available information. Unfortunately, not all information is created equal. When assessing a search engine result, webpage, or any type of information on the web’s degree of reliability one must consider the information’s author, the intended audience & purpose, context that could introduce bias, and the source’s time stamp. First you must identify the author and ask yourself several questions. Is it reasonable to assume this author is reputable regarding this topic? Is the source familiar or foreign, and is that good or bad? What else does this source typically write about? The answers to these questions will give you some insight into if a source is credible or not. Next, consider who the intended audience is and if that affects the credibility & purpose (thus, appropriate use) of the information. For example, an article about dieting is likely for entertainment purposes when found on cosmopolitan.com, more likely for sales and marketing promotions when found on weight watchers, and is more likely factually driven if found in an electronically published scientific journal. After contemplating the intended audience, it is advised that you think about the context of both the topic and the source of the information and if that context could inherently introduce bias into said information. A perfect example of this is when reading about a president’s latest press briefing on Fox News or The Washington Post. The favorability of the briefing to a given political agenda will undoubtedly influence the resulting information sources’ sentiments which could then result in glossing over certain facts or improperly highlighting an insignificant soundbite. The final consideration that should be applied to an information source on the internet when evaluating its reliability is by checking the publication date. Two examples will help put the importance of an information’s freshness into perspective. The first example concerns an information’s initial publication date. If you are trying to understand the emotions behind an event you may want to look at information written near the event, but if you are more interested in factual retrospect, a research-driven source written later when more facts are available and emotions have settled may be more appropriate. Aside from publication dates, the date of the most recent update to a site’s content is equally important. For example, if you are trying to watch a movie on Netflix before it’s removed at the end of this month, do you want to look at a site last updated within one week, one month, or one year? Hopefully, these tips sound like your common thought process when reading new information, but if they don’t, you will become a more properly informed member of the web if you adopt these practices.
The techniques for better search queries & advice for assessing information reliability explained here are not exhaustive. The best advice anyone can give for using the internet and search engines is to never stop seeking new information and to always be critical in your trustworthiness analyses. There are countless online resources just like this one, and some that dive into unparalleled detail, that can further increase your informational prowess. Doing so can only make you and your society a better informed and more democratic place.
Arana, A. D. (2014, March 31). How Search Engines Affect Democracy. Retrieved March 20, 2017, from [link]
Beville, B. (2017, January 18). Fake News & the Importance of Information Literacy. Retrieved March 20, 2017, from [link]
Google. (2012, July 25). Four Screens to Victory [Google presents strong case for online political advertisements]. Retrieved March 24, 2017, from [link]
Lynch, M. (n.d.). Don’t look now, Kevin. But I think you’re being googled. [Search engine cartoon]. Retrieved March 24, 2017, from [link]
Norton, A. (2011, April 27). 10 tips for smarter, more efficient Internet searching. Retrieved March 20, 2017, from [link]
The McGraw-Hill Companies. (2001, January 01). How to Judge the Reliability of Internet Information. Retrieved March 21, 2017, from [link]