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:
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 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!):
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:
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.
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.
You may ave heard of website domains, which you can find at the end of a website's main URL (for instance, www.hostos.cuny.edu - .edu is the domain.)
A domain can only give you limited information about the group that made the website - there are no "good" or "bad" domains.
Here is a quick rundown of what they mean. (There are others, but these are the most common:)
.edu = usually a college or university
So what? Colleges and universities are known for their research. Research is about people asking questions, discussing what they find, arguing about meaning, and building on ideas, not about finding one true answer for all time. Equally educated, reasonable, and honest people may disagree, and the civil debate of ideas is crucial to our collective search for truth. So that means that information from one .edu site may or may not conflict with information on another .edu site.
Keep in mind as well that some colleges are created to promote a particular religion or worldview, so what they say will reflect that perspective.
.gov = a government department or agency (examples: the government of NYC, the White House)
So what? Government agencies try to work for the good of the public, and since they are funded by public money, they usually have to be more transparent and detailed about what they are doing.
Keep in mind that these agencies are responsible for upholding current laws and policies, so are not likely to include critiques of those laws and policies.
.org = usually a not-for-profit group (examples: groups like the Red Cross; religious organizations like churches; hospitals; political groups from any political point of view)
So what? Not-for-profit groups exist, as the description implies, for reasons other than making money. They may exist to promote research into a disease, or to provide services, or to advocate for a particular set of ideas and policies. They usually say what they think is important and their reasons for existing in an "about us" page.
.com = most businesses and most everything else.
So what? There are many types of groups that exist for profit, from retail stores and restaurants to private research and development companies, to law firms, to wholesale distributors of goods, to movie production companies, to newspapers and magazines and more. There might be very good information in a .com website (many professors will accept nytimes.com articles as credible, for example, and respected medical institutions like the Mayo Clinic can have .com websites).
However, just as you know that:
a for-profit company also has a point of view and reason for existing, and in this case that reason includes making money, which will influence the information they share.
Some major red flags for any site, no matter what the domain:
Always keep in mind that good researchers always ask of all websites, no matter what the domain is: