While school libraries remain reliable resources for studying, there’s no denying that the internet has more information and is generally more convenient. It’s only a matter of discerning what is and what is not relevant to your assignment. This process entails not only knowing the basics of proper research but also knowing how the internet works.
The internet as we know it is not an encyclopedia. Unlike actual libraries where books and study materials are carefully selected, the internet has lots of low-quality content. A systematic and informed use of search engines is necessary to weed out inaccurate information. This means understanding how search engine optimization (SEO) works. For the purpose of simplicity, let’s use Google as the default search engine in this discussion as it’s the one that is used the most.
The first thing to consider about SEO is that websites value their Google ranking a lot. Website owners often spend a considerable amount to climb the search results list. In that sense, you have to consider it as a commercial service. Forbes journalist Denis Pinsky identifies SEO as the guiding principle that dictates how Google serves internet users. Therefore, you should not take the results of your Google search as a reflection of actual reality. It’s less of a library and more like a highway with billboards.
Authority vs. reliability
Results from search engines are primarily based on their respective algorithms, and for Google, this is called PageRank. The search provider analyzes human-generated links based on the assumption that a page linked from other important pages are more likely to be relevant to a particular keyword. For example, if you search ‘feminism in the 20th century’, you are bound to get a heap of information from sources as varied as encyclopedias, journals, personal blog posts, political propaganda, and more.
All of these are relevant to your keywords, but the ones that get linked to others the most get a higher search ranking. Ideally, these should be encyclopedias and other peer-reviewed sources. However, Google has no underlying mechanism for determining the academic reliability of a page. Its concept of authority is largely link-based, not academically-based. A researcher’s best bet would be to search within a reliable and referred website rather than Google itself.
Keywords and search syntax
SEO is an economy of keywords, as they connect readers to a page. You have to know the appropriate keywords and how to phrase them properly to get the most relevant search results.
Google follows a search syntax that uses trigger words, terms that activate special features such as a ‘map’, ‘weather’, or ‘public data.’ For example, if you search for ‘gentrification’, Google will most likely bring up a collection of pages including news and videos. But if you typed “define gentrification”, it will list definitions from different versions of the dictionary because “define” is a trigger word.
You can also use Boolean operators, such as “not” and “or”, and other words to assist you in the search. These features can also be activated in the Advanced Search tab. They can help a lot when researching for specific phrases. Google has a whole list of trigger words and Boolean operators.
Understanding Google’s featured snippets
Google has another feature called ‘featured snippet’, which is a small window showing partial text from a specific website at the top of the search results. Its purpose is to give an immediate answer to a query.
Google’s tech experts don’t reveal their algorithm in choosing which websites get selected for featured snippets. But they stress that credibility, reliability, and good SEO standing are among the most significant factors in order to get featured. With credibility and reliability already a given, most websites look to SEO to get the coveted top spot. Ian Pereira, Ayima‘s Head of Organic Performance, relayed the insights of SEO strategist Jennifer Bui regarding featured snippets. He explained that the website should “bring real value to the user and be formatted in the correct way to keep a user engaged.” Of course, one cannot discount the fact that Google may feature snippets from websites that pay them because SEO standing is also a matter of business. This is why it is necessary for students to be wary of this dimension before relying on the featured answer given by the search engine.
When researching, a lot of students format their search requests as questions. Google’s algorithm processes some of these requests as queries that can be answered with a reliable featured snippet. If the question demands a precise and simple answer (e.g. In what state is Los Angeles located?), Google will most likely respond with a correct answer. But this is not always the case when asking more complicated questions (e.g. How was the South affected by the American Civil War?). This becomes even more problematic when a complex question touches on other related tags that may not be relevant to your query. These tags may be connected to paid websites, so the featured snippets may include answers from them. Therefore, the best way to research when using Google is to make a habit of verifying information.
Doing your research on the internet has its merits, but it also poses risks, which is why it’s beneficial to be aware of how search engines and SEO work. If you’re looking for specific websites that can help you in your assignment, check out Help With Assignment’s previous post on 5 websites that provide study help.