Google is ubiquitous in our lives. We ask it to diagnose our illnesses, solve our kitchen emergencies, and plug the holes in our memory. Despite all this practice, however, multiple studies show a great many of us remain terrible at Googling.
One in-depth 2011 study conducted by academic librarians found that "the majority of students--of all levels--exhibited significant difficulties that ranged across nearly every aspect of the search process," according to Insider Higher Ed. A more recent Stanford study agrees that 80 percent of students (and many adults) can't determine if a website is credible.
In the era of fake news, the general lack of search savvy isn't too shocking. But while we all know that many people struggle to locate accurate information online, we assume we are the exception. Sorry, but that's probably not true.
All the children in Lake Wobegon are not above average, and you are probably not optimizing your use of Google.
Your Google search sensei has entered the building.
But help is on the way in the form of the best possible expert to explain how to stop being so terrible at online search.
Daniel Russell, a research scientist at Google, has spent the last 14 years studying how people go wrong when using Google. His new book, The Joy of Search, explains in great detail how we can all do better.
For the time-pressed, Russell has also penned articles and blog posts offering essential tips to help you rapidly improve your search skills. For the basics like finding a recipe or locating your nearest pharmacy, this advice isn't necessary. But if you want to get accurate information on complex topics, these are Russell's top tips.
Don't settle for the first answer you get. This seems obvious, but according to Russell, far too many of us are satisfied with the first answer that pops up. "Conducting two or three searches offers a number of perspectives and credible sources for a well-rounded view on the subject," he writes in a Google blog post.
Ask yourself, "Who says, and why?" People don't just trip one day and accidentally put up a website. They do it for some purpose or another. To get a good sense of whether you should trust a given source, you need to think about its creator's motives. Russell recommends: "Consider the primary purpose of the website and ask yourself: What are they trying to help me with? What is their goal in providing this information? Does the information on the website align with other credible sources?"
Don't include your suspected answer in the search. This too seems obvious, but Russell feels the need to stress that if you suspect an answer, don't include it in your search. You'll just get results that confirm whatever you already believe, whether it's true or not. "If you search for 'do golden retrievers weigh 85 pounds,' you may find '85 pounds' baked into the web pages that result from your search. Instead search 'weight of golden retrievers,'" he offers as an example.
Play around with key words (and go wild with the browser tabs). Just searching one phrase is almost never optimal. "Very experienced searchers often open multiple browser tabs or windows to pursue different avenues of research, usually investigating slightly different variations of the original query in parallel," Russell reports with his Google colleague Mario Callegaro in Scientific American. Also, make sure you use keywords you fully understand and in the correct order: "[ chow pet ] is very different than [ pet chow ]."
Get to know basic operators. Putting quotes around a search term makes Google search for that exact phase. A negative sign in front of a term removes results with that word. "Site:" let's you limit your search to a particular webpage. These hacks are called operators and they are incredibly handy. So is the find text function (Command-F on Mac or Control-F on PC) which lets you search for a particular word or phrase on a webpage.
"Overall, expert searchers use all of the resources of the search engine and their browsers to search both deeply (by making query variations) and broadly (by having multiple tabs or windows open). Effective searchers also know how to limit a search to a particular website or to a particular kind of document, find a phrase (by using quote marks to delimit the phrase), and find text on a page (by using a text-find tool)," Russell and Callegaro sum up.
Armed with these tips, you can now count yourself an expert searcher too.