The first stop for online research is generally a search engine, most often Google: more than 85 % of all online searches in 2017 were through Google and it is the most popular search engine among Canadian youth. Surprisingly, though, few of us know the skills and tools needed to use search engines effectively: for example, just over a third of Canadian students use advanced search engine tools and only half scan the full first page of search engine results before clicking on one.
Keep in mind that search engines are not actually sources of information: they’re gateways to sources that have to be read and evaluated. You should always go on to the actual source and judge it for yourself.
Both search engines and social networks are designed to deliver what’s most relevant to you – which they determine by tracking what you read, what you watch, what you click on, what you purchase, and where you go online (among many other things) and feeding it to an algorithm that ‘decides’ what content you get to see.
The best way to avoid this (in addition to varying your sources of information) is to limit the ways in which search engines and social networks collect data about you, so that they’re less able to build a profile. To do this, you can:
- Make a habit of using Incognito or Private Browsing mode in your browser
- Change your settings to limit tracking in browsers such as Chrome, Safari, Firefox and Edge
- Use a non-tracking search engine such as DuckDuckGo, SwissCows or StartPage
- Install a blocking plugin such as PrivacyBadger
- Set the ad tracking and feed preferences in your social network and search engine accounts to not deliver customized content
Learn how to fine-tune a search
Search engines work best when you include as many specific terms as possible. For information on the movie “Grand Hotel” for example, you would want to include the word “movie” (to avoid hits referring to actual hotels called the Grand Hotel); if you wanted to get information on the 2016 movie rather than the more famous 1932 release, you might add the term “2016.”
You get the best results by including terms that are as specific as possible to what you’re searching for: if you want information on U.S. President Ronald Reagan’s “Star Wars” space defence plan, for instance, you would add the term “Reagan” to avoid results that only refer to the movie Star Wars.
While using more specific terms is generally helpful, though, it’s also important to make sure that your search terms won’t give you results tilted towards a particular point of view. If your search is in the form of a question, it can wind up giving you the answer you want: for instance, searching for “Is walking better than running?” gives you results that are either neutral or in favour of walking, while searching for “Is running better than walking?” gives you the reverse. Similarly, including specific terms connected to the answer can give you misleading results: if you’re trying to find out whether NFL football ratings went up or down as a result of players kneeling during the U.S. national anthem, searching for “NFL ratings down” will give you results that say they went up and searching for “NFL ratings up” will give you results that say they went down.
To make a search as effective as possible use the “Advanced Search” option available in most search engines. (In Google you can access this feature in “Settings”.) This will give you additional search options such as filtering by language, by date, or limiting a search to one website in particular.
To save time, you can also put some of these directly in your search term:
- You can leave out results that include a specific term by using the minus sign (so adding “-dogs” will leave out any results that include the word “dogs”).
- You can search only one website by adding “site:” and then the Web address (so adding “site:www.mediasmarts.ca” will give you only results from that site).
- In the case of some very well-known sites, such as Wikipedia, you can get similar results just by adding the name of the website to your search.
- You can leave out results from a website by adding the minus sign and then the Web address (so adding “-www.mediasmarts.ca” will leave out results from that website.) This is very useful when you want to find out about a website, because it will only show you what other sources say about it.
- You can search only sites from one country by adding “location:” and then the name of the country (so adding “location:Canada”) will only give you results from websites based in Canada.)
- You can search for specific types of files by adding the word “filetype:” and then the file extension (so adding “filetype:pdf” will only give you Adobe PDF files.)
- You can find out who links to a site by using the word “link:” and then the Web address (so searching for “link:mediasmarts.ca” will show you every other site that links to that one.)
You can also combine two or more of these tools. For example, if you search for “link:mediasmarts.ca –mediasmarts.ca” you will see which other sites link to that page, but not other MediaSmarts’ pages that link there.
As well, remember that you can redo and improve your searches. If you find a lot of irrelevant results, for instance, you might find some words or phrases that you can exclude.
Go beyond the Web (into the Deep Web)
Search engines don’t index the entire Web — a lot of the information that’s available sits in databases or behind pages that require users to log in.
For example, the catalog of books at your local library is most likely not indexed by Web search engines and you can only search it by using their own search engine. The same goes for many other collections of content such as the GettyImages collection of stock photos, or the collection of public domain music in the Internet Archive.
Before going straight to a search engine, therefore, ask yourself if there’s a more specific source that you should try first.
Here are some examples of Deep Web sources you may find useful (note that some of these may contain advertising, collect user data or charge for some services):
- The Wayback Machine archives past versions of websites
- Google Scholar searches academic journals and articles
- Archive.org is a database of public domain media (videos, music, images, etc.)
- Library of Congress searches content collected by the United States Library of Congress
- Statistics Canada provides data collected by the Canadian government on a wide range of topics
- Government Information lets you search for official resources published by the Federal government of Canada
Get outside your bubble
No single search engine can cover everything on the Internet and different search engines will give you different results. As well, many search engines build a profile of you over time and tailor search results to that profile. For that reason, it’s a good idea to use more than one. Here are a few alternatives to Google:
You can also use a search engine that compiles results from many different search engines such as Dogpile.
Don’t rely on autosuggestions
Many search engines will also give you some suggestions for search strings as you start typing your keywords. For example, if you start typing “Jacques”, the search engine may display “Jacques Cartier” as one of its suggestions. This can be very useful in cases where you are not sure about the spelling of something but, because these suggestions are based on what other people have searched for or your previous searches, they can also be misleading. For instance, on the day this was written the first autosuggest for the word “vaccines” was “vaccines Bible”, which led to a page of results falsely claiming that the Bible opposes vaccination. (Note that Google gives you the option to report inappropriate predictions.)
Don’t use voice or mobile search for important topics
More and more of us are using mobile devices such as tablets and cell phones for searching the Internet, using voice-operated search tools, or both. These can be very convenient, but there are a number of reasons why you shouldn’t use them for anything more important than finding restaurants or a weather forecast. Not only is it difficult to use any of the search tools described above, but these searches have some biases built in that you might not want: for example, mobile search results generally prioritize results that are near you or are happening right now.
 “Global Search Engine Market Share 2018 | Statistic,” Statista. www.statista.com/statistics/216573/worldwide-market-share-of-search-engines/
 Steeves, Valerie. (2014) Young Canadians in a Wired World, Phase III: Life Online. Ottawa: MediaSmarts.
 Steeves, Valerie. (2014) Young Canadians in a Wired World, Phase III: Experts or Amateurs? Gauging Young Canadians’ Digital Literacy Skills. Ottawa: MediaSmarts.
 Caulfield, M. (2017). “Avoiding Confirmation Bias in Searches” in Web Literacy for Student Fact-Checkers. < https://webliteracy.pressbooks.com/>
 Tripodi, Francesca. “How Trump Voters Decide Who to Trust – Trust Issues – Medium.” Medium, Augmenting Humanity, June 21, 2018. medium.com/s/trustissues/how-trump-voters-decide-who-to-trust-4e66fc7b6d27
 “Mobile Search Advertising Around The Globe: 2014 Annual Report | Marin Software.” Marin, www.marinsoftware.com/resources/whitepapers/mobile-search-advertising-around-the-globe-2014-annual-report
 “The Voice UI Has Gone Mainstream.” Tech.pinions, techpinions.com/the-voice-ui-has-gone-mainstream/46148
 “Mobile Search: It’s Different.” Forrester, July 10, 2017. go.forrester.com/blogs/16-07-26-mobile_search_its_different