Monday, 3 December 2007

Google: bad for you?

I recently attended a talk on the topic of google, why it is bad for you and how it is systematically wrecking the traditional principle of searching as we know it. As I sped back to Ely through the fens on a train bound for Norwich, I felt compelled to jot down my musings on this subversive topic.

It is true to say that most people are fundamentally lazy. We take the easier path. If you know that every document on your hard drive is easily retrieved through a keyword search function, you’re not really going to bother filing those documents into a myriad of folders in a system of files so complex that even the Inland Revenue would be jealous. No, you would most probably avoid their wrath and just use the search facility. However, imagine conversely that your search retrieval tool was so rubbish, it couldn’t even find its own memory files with its customised search builder. Then, you’d be forced to file. See what I mean? The more that we are treated to quick, easy searching, the quicker we forget how to conduct effective search strategies. We lose the disciplines of search and file. It melts the brain and numbs the senses. Google, it is argued by some, is too quick and too convenient. It is our chocolate milk, our candy floss; it seems good, lulls us into a false sense of security, persuades us that quick results equal good quality relevant results.
That aint necessarily so.

Two of the main problems with google stem from its search organisation. Google only indexes sites based on keywords and page ranking. Consequently, link farms are now polluting the internet due to their continued presence on the top five results returned in many google searches. Keyword searching is dangerous: many relevant results may be lost due to their not mentioning the same word as the one stipulated in the search. For example, I want to search for abba tribute bands. Unfortunately, the plethora of sites describing the plot outlines to Mamma Mia would be lost, unless of course they also contained ‘abba’ ‘tribute’ or ‘bands.’ Without quoting the phrase, I may even end up with pages of sites related to generic bands, although that is less the fault of google and more the fault of poor training and education in search strategies. The other main problem with google is that, as its creators do not wish to raise expectation only to disappoint its customers, it does not search any subscription websites. So, no OED or Encyclopaedia Britannica, no quality databases at all. Yet more quality potentially relevant results are thus not located.

Google leads us into a false sense of security. It leads us to believe that we are searching more sites that we are in reality, it attacks our senses with advertising and sponsored sites which often have little relevance to our search, but most worryingly it encourages the belief that natural language searching on a general purpose search engine will locate relevant results. We type our search into the little box, google searches the universe, and brings the most relevant material to us. This is a myth that desperately needs to be expelled: keyword searching, page ranking, non inclusion of subscription sites are all problems, but the main issue is that there is just too much information out there! If we do manage to find some relevant information, it is relevant in the way that it will do for now; using google to find information is like using a plaster to cure a disease.

Google perpetuates the myth that internet searching is simple. It can be, but not if one really want to find the most relevant, highest quality, highest number of results. People are no longer taught how to construct search strategies, how to research properly, or how to verify conflicting information from differing sources in a google search. Google is all pervading in our society. It has become a verb. I often say ‘Oh, I’ll google that tomorrow.’ It’s too easy. We all know that we shouldn’t use it for the limitations explored above, but we still do because we are human and we are fundamentally lazy. A good analogy to using google would be when you eat a ready meal straight from the black carton. We all know that they contain too much salt, that we should have gone shopping after work and bought all the fresh meat and veg, then gone home and spent hours preparing it. But we didn’t. We left the office, got in, shoved the pie meal into the oven, watched soap operas for half an hour, then consumed the heated pie mess in a vague hope to shut up our hunger till morning. The difference comes when you realise what you’re doing and you understand the pie, or google, for what it really is; you know its true nature. The worry is when young people, only too familiar with the Control V and Control C keys, leave school and arrive at University fervently believing that google hold all the answers and their only job for the next three years is to type stuff into the little box at the top of the white screen. Real research skills are not just being ignored, they are not being taught. Reliance on google as an academic crutch means that the student misses out on all the quality resources out there because they’ve never been taught how to use quality subscribed electronic resources, how to conduct searches or how to evaluate information out there on the net. There is a growing need in our Universities for information literacy skills and I believe that library staff are the ones to plug the gap. After all, despite our closet google love, we conduct search strategies every day, we retrieve information from the darkest corner of cyberspace and the most cobwebbed top shelf of the reference section. Often, all before coffee break. We know how to evaluate what we find, and we can help these misguided google misadventurers to discover some truly wonderful relevant information out there. Is google bad for you? Perhaps, in the same way that turkey twizzlers aren’t great. Moderation is the key. That, and a sense of the limitations. Pass the ketchup then!

1 comment:

Muser said...

Well put. If students use Google or similar engines as only a starting point or a casual reference, then there's no harm done, but students and others need to know the difference between genuine databases and mere search-engines. Good luck with training.