Tag Archives: search engines

Searching For the Answers

An updated website is one of the most useful tools that academic libraries have to communicate with the students, faculty, and staff we serve at our colleges and universities. Our websites offer access to information sources, provide help with research, and list our policies and basic information about the library: where we’re located, when we’re open, how to get in touch with us. It’s 2013 — libraries (and colleges) have had websites for a long time, so surely our website is the first place to look to learn more about the library, right?

Maybe, but maybe not. While I always check the website when I need more information about a library, often arriving there via the college or university website, I’m not sure that all of our patrons do. More often than not I’d guess that they use a search engine to find the library website. Assuming that Google is the search engine of choice for most of our patrons, what do they see when they search for our libraries?

(Feel free to go ahead and try a Google search with your own college or university library. I’ll wait.)

I tend to search with Google, but I must not search that often for businesses or other specific locations on Google’s web search, because it took me a while to notice that Google had added a box on the right side of the search results page populated with details about a business or location. The box includes a photo, a map (which links to Google Maps for directions), and some basic information about the place: a description from Wikipedia (if one exists), the address, phone number, and hours. There’s also a space for people to rate and review the business or location, as well as links to other review websites. It seems that the information in the box is populated automatically by Google from the original websites.

This is great news, right? This Google feature can get the information our patrons need to them without having to click through to the library website. On the other hand, what happens when the information is wrong?

At my library we first learned about the Google info box last winter. A student approached the Reference Desk to verify the library’s opening hours. It seems that she’d found the library hours on Google, and was upset to learn that we’d extended our hours the prior semester. While there’s a happy ending to this story — it’s delightful when a student wants to come to the library earlier than she thinks she can! — this experience was frustrating for both of us. Since we hadn’t realized that Google added the info box to its search results, we didn’t know to check whether the information was correct. The student naturally assumed that we were in control of the information in that box, and was angry when it seemed that we hadn’t kept it up to date.

Just a month ago we encountered another issue with the Google info box for our library. I don’t know that I would expect there to be reviews of a college library on business or location review websites, but our library’s info box does have one review website listed under the Reviews heading. Following the link leads to a review that has nothing to do with the library (or the college), and is instead a post criticizing the city’s police department. While a bit jarring, it only takes a minute of reading the review site to realize that the review isn’t actually about the library, just a false hit on the review website.

While there are definitely advantages to having basic information about our library available quickly for our patrons, some aspects of the Google info box are troubling from a user experience perspective. It’s unclear how often Google updates the information in that box automatically — our experience with the incorrect library hours suggests that it’s not updated frequently. Also, it’s challenging to edit some of the information in this box. There’s a link for business owners to claim and edit their profile which does offer the opportunity to change some details displayed in the box. But we weren’t able to remove the erroneous review website from our listing; our only option was to use the Feedback link to request that the link be removed, and who knows how long that will take?

My biggest takeaway has been the reminder that we should periodically research our libraries as if we were patrons looking for information. Google offers search alerts, which can be helpful to learn when our libraries are being mentioned on other websites, but I don’t know that there’s any way to automatically learn what information has been added or changed in the Google info box. I’d be interested to know if anyone has figured out a quick and easy way to keep track of this sort of thing — please share your experiences in the comments!

They Need Us, They Really Need Us

Yesterday morning a friend’s retweet caught my eye. Apparently last week the productivity blog Lifehacker ran a survey in which readers were asked whether Google’s search results seemed increasingly full of spam and less useful. About 10,000 Lifehacker readers took the survey, and the top responses were eye-opening:

  • Nearly 34% of those who replied chose: “Absolutely. The spammers have gained a significant foothold.”
  • And almost 44% voted: “Kind of/sort of, but it’s still the best way to get at the good stuff.”

Of course this is a huge and open-ended survey question — exactly what kinds of information are users searching for? Looking at the comments (and the general content published by Lifehacker) it’s clear that most of the respondents probably use Google for typical, everyday searches: looking for news, weather, directions and travel, reliable product reviews and recommendations before purchasing, health and medical facts and advice, etc. I’d wager that most of the users who answered the survey weren’t referring to searches for research or scholarly information.

But I found these results especially interesting in light of Brian Sullivan’s satirical piece recently in the Chronicle reporting on the end of the academic library. The second factor he noted that contributed to the death of the academic library? “Library instruction was no longer necessary” because databases had become so easy to use, just like search engines.

(I should note that, while occasionally frustrating, I generally enjoy speculative futuristic scenarios about libraries and librarianship — they’re fun to read, and can be genuinely thought-provoking.)

Leaving aside issues of usability in library databases for the moment (because I think there’s still a long way to go), it doesn’t seem like instruction and reference librarians should strike out in search of new jobs quite yet. If Google and other search engines are increasingly not cutting it for even the basic, everyday searches for most people — usually the easy stuff, right? — how can we expect students to come to college already fluent in finding quality research information on the internet?

I was also struck by one of the Lifehacker commenters who wrote: “Part of the problem could be that people expect Google to read their minds.” We see students struggle with choosing and using appropriate search terms at the reference desk and in our classes, and we know how different the results list can be. What goes in determines what comes out — last semester I helped a student who was surprised to see that when she included the words “research paper” along with her topic in a Google search, her search results were dominated by websites selling term papers (which was, I hope, not what she was looking for).

So while I do hope that search engines and library databases continue to become easier to use and to give us better quality, more relevant results (and that seems likely to happen), I’m not at all ready to call it quits. I think we’ve still got a long way to go before our students won’t need library instruction.

In Google They Trust

An interesting article swam through my Twitterstream recently that’s a perfect complement to the Project Information Literacy report that Barbara mentioned last week. It’s a recent publication of research by the Web Use Project led by Eszter Hargittai, a professor of Communication Studies at Northwestern University. The article, Trust Online: Young Adults’ Evaluation of Web Content, appears in the latest issue of the International Journal of Communication (which is open access, hooray!), and reports on the information-seeking behavior of college freshmen at the University of Illinois at Chicago. Specifically, the researchers examine how students search for, locate, and evaluate information on the web.

Surveys were administered to 1,060 students, then a subset of 102 students were observed and interviewed as they searched for information on the internet. In the survey students were asked to rate criteria they use for evaluating websites and how often they use those criteria when doing research for their coursework. Students rated several criteria as important to consider when searching for information for school assignments, including currency/timeliness, checking additional sources to verify the information, identifying opinion versus fact, and identifying the author of the website.

However, while students surveyed and interviewed know that they should assess the credibility of information sources they find on the web, in practice this didn’t always hold true. When researchers observed students searching for information, the students rarely assessed the credibility of websites using what faculty and librarians would consider appropriate criteria, e.g., examining author credentials, checking references, etc. Instead, they placed much trust in familiar brands: Google, Yahoo!, SparkNotes, MapQuest, and Microsoft, among others.

Students also invested their trust in search engines to provide them with the “best” results for their research needs. While some acknowledged that search engine results are not ranked by credibility or accuracy, they asserted that in their experience the top results returned by search engines were usually the most relevant for them. Adding to the confusion, some students went right to the sponsored links on the search engine results page, which are not organic results at all but paid advertising.

Some of the students interviewed were able to differentiate between the types of information usually found on websites based on domain name, remarking that websites with .edu and .gov addresses are most trustworthy. But students were less clear on the differences between .org and .com. Many regard .org websites as more trustworthy, probably because originally that domain was reserved for non-profit organizations, a restriction which no longer exists.

I highly recommend giving this article a read, as it’s full of additional data and details that I’m sure will resonate with academic librarians. For me reading this article was like stepping into one of my English Comp instruction sessions. I always devote a portion of the class to discussing doing research on the internet, often ask students these same questions, and (usually) get the same responses. It’s great to see published data on these issues, and I hope the article is widely read throughout higher ed. My one wish is that there were a way to comment directly on the article and remind faculty that librarians can collaborate with them to strengthen their students’ website evaluation skills.