The New York Times Website reported today on "The Dirty Little Secrets of Search." It details how J.C. Penney manipulated Google’s search results to rank first for search terms such as ”dresses” and “bedding.” The article follows another NY Times article, "A Bully Finds a Pulpit on the Web,” which described how a crooked retailer’s Website ranked high in Google for "eyeglasses," because of links from highly critical Web postings.
In today’s article, Matt Cutts of Google defended his team’s efforts to combat search engine spam, noting that “[s]pammers never stop.” The article offers data that explains spammers’ persistence: on average, 34 percent of Google’s traffic goes to the No. 1 result, about twice what goes to No. 2 result.
Google cannot reasonably be expected to anticipate or immediately counter every scheme. The solution to this problem is not to shame Google into working harder to fight spam. The solution is education. Internet users must learn how to find information online effectively, so they are not as heavily influenced by the first search results on a single search engine. Unfortunately, study after study shows that the vast majority of Internet users, including college and high school students, cannot effectively use the Internet to find, evaluate and use the information they need in their daily lives. This is a much more profound problem than whose Website shows up first for "dresses" or "eyeglasses."
A 2008 survey commissioned by Yahoo! found that 85% of initial search queries fail to return the information users were seeking. A 2008 research review by the University College of London exposed as a myth the notion of a “Google Generation” of young people with native ability to find information online. In 2010, we conducted our own study of 300 high school and middle school students. When we asked how they knew if a site was credible, the most common answers were "if it sounds good" or "if it has the information I need." Two-thirds of students said they “rarely” or “never” check the author or date of an article, with some adding that “it doesn’t matter who wrote it” and “you can never find the date.”
An article in Inside HigherEd last fall laid bare how dismal the research habits of college students are. The article reported on a presentation by Andrew Asher, who had studied the search habits of more than 600 Illinois college students, nearly all of whom reported relying heavily on the first few results on Google for their research. He quoted a sophomore biology major: “I’m just trusting Google to know what are the good resources.” And yet Asher reported that “of all the students that I interviewed, not a single one of them could give an adequate conceptual definition of how Google returns results...The word 'magic' came up a lot."
Asher’s findings sync with the conclusions of the 2008 University College of London research review. It reported a "new divide," finding students who had access to effective research training from librarians in high school "taking the prize of better grades," with those who didn’t have such access showing up at college "beyond hope," having "already developed an ingrained coping behaviour: they have learned to 'get by' with Google."
That many college students are “beyond hope” was echoed by three college librarians in the Inside Higher Ed article. A Seton Hall librarian told Inside Higher Ed that "unless we can demonstrate some measurable payoff to searching, students aren’t going to do it."
How much does the unwillingness of students to learn research skills contribute to what experts call a “lost generation” of chronically unemployed, or under-employed, workers, resulting from a mismatch of workers' skills and employers' needs? Would you pay someone to do "research" for you that consisted of summarizing the first links on Google? Or would you instead hire one of the few people on the other side of the "new divide," who knows how to find the best information available anywhere?
Will this "lost generation" phenomenon continue with current students? Our experience suggests that, for many, it will. Dulcinea Media is continuing to develop SweetSearch and our other tools and content that help educators teach students how to use the Internet effectively. While reviews of our products are almost unanimously glowing and their use is growing nicely, a barrier to their wide adoption by schools is the status quo - textbooks and other crude tools from the 19th century that remain the primary method by which students learn.
We realize that most classroom teachers generally lack the time and experience required to teach intensive online research skills, and thus school librarians play a critical role in preparing students to succeed in the current marketplace. Yet around the world, many school librarian positions are coming under the axe as school boards begin to consider next year's budgets.
Conversely, we've come across hundreds of schools with very strong library programs that anchor a true 21st century curriculum that teaches students the skills they'll need to succeed in the workforce. We're encouraged that our presentation on teaching Web research skills has been downloaded 21,000 times in four months, and is being taught as part of the curriculum at colleges of education and library science. Students who learn these skills will become the eventual political and business leaders of our world; students who don't will continue to get tripped up by scammers who finagle a high position in Google's search results.