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Research 101: Pro tips for internet research

What excellent researchers do

Expert researchers investigate every source they use, and think about each source critically.

You'll have to gather information and use your judgment to decide whether or not you'll trust a website. Some professors will not accept any non-library website for their research assignments, while others will - but those who will accept websites will probably want you to be ready to explain why you believe the websites you've used are credible (believable, trustworthy).

Questions to ask about EVERY website you find:

  • WHO wrote this? (It may be one person, or a group)
  • What QUALIFIES the author(s) to write about this subject? Even if they have experience or advanced degrees, are those degrees and that experience relevant to the thing they are writing about?
  • WHERE did they get their information?
    • For example, their information might be from: original scientific research, and/or interviews of experts (who are those experts, and what are their qualifications?, and/or published books and reports, and/or personal experience, and/or social media, and/or somewhere else.
  • They may not tell you directly where the information is from - you may have to use your critical reading skills to figure it out.
  • What is their POINT OF VIEW?  There is more than one valid point of view on any complicated subject. What do they believe is important? 
  • WHY are they telling us this? As you know, writing takes time and effort! No one builds a website without having a reason.
  • What do other people say about this person or group? (Google them!)
    • If you find people who praise and trust them, who are those people, and what do you think of them?
    • If you find people who dislike and distrust them, who are those people, and what do you think of them?
  • Why might you tend to trust this?        <------------------>          Why might you tend to doubt this? Be able to explain your reasons.

Notice that using Google is not a shortcut - to do it right, you have to do MORE work, to vet and assess each source to see if you should even take it seriously.

There is a lot of good information available on the open web, but every website must be critically considered, and especially if you're new to a subject, you'll have to take the time to INVESTIGATE the authors behind each site to weigh its trustworthiness.

How Google searches and what it can't see

How does Google search?

Google sends out "spiders" (also called bots or web crawlers) that jump from webpage to webpage following hyperlinks on each page. These spiders index the words on each page in a databse. The basic idea is that when you do a Google search, you are searching their database to find webpages that seem relevant based on their words.

However, Google also ranks pages based on other factors--for more on the process, see this video -- but please take the Google representative's claim of neutrality in determining the quality of websites with a grain of salt, as many people have critiqued Google's process for ranking pages, and a whole industry called "search engine optimization" has developed to show how businesses can alter their websites to manipulate their Google rankings.

Note that Google will also use what it knows about you and/or the computer you're using to tailor your results - try this with this search (you won't get the same thing as someone searching in Dallas, Texas!):

google city council

What does Google NOT search?

From some estimates, Google has access to less than 10% of online material; other estimates say that the figure is even smaller than that. Some webpages that the spiders cannot find and index include:

  • Subscription databases
  • Any pages that require a password or login
  • Websites that have been made private/not crawlable by Google spiders, such as networks available within a particular company
  • Web pages that are not linked to from other web pages
  • Web-based mail servers

This is why online library materials - many of which require subscriptions (which you help to pay for with your tuition) and require a login to view (which is why you need to activate your ID each semester to verify that you're a current student in order to have access from off-campus) are not going to turn up in Google searches.

Some things (for example, a New York Times article) might be available both through a Google search and through a OneSearch search, but many documents cannot be found by Google.

Search word strategies

my searches are not finding me what I want

If you are not finding what you need, whether you're finding too few things or too many, these search strategies for using library databases also apply to Google searches.

Watch out for conspiracy theories

Conspiracy theories have become very common. They provide simplistic explanations, usually blaming one group of people acting with bad intentions -- "the truth They don't want you to know!" "the real reason They caused X problem".

Conspiracy theorists try to sound authentic and like to make videos that appeal to the emotions, but look closely at their claims and then compare to the de-bunking arguments of scientists, historians, engineers, and others who have serious and rigorous training.

Although it is tempting to believe conspiracy theories, because they can make you feel like you've discovered a hidden truth, they are more like rumors and urban myths that spread quickly from person to person but do not stand up to evidence.

Below is a short interview from National Public Radio (NPR) with a psychology professor on why people are drawn to conspiracy theories.