The Search World Is Flat

How does Google’s unchallenged domination of Search shape the way we retrieve information? Does Google flatten global knowledge?
I look around, I see my kids relying on Wikipedia, I watch my journalist students work. I can’t help but wonder: Does Google impose a framework on our cognitive processes, on the way we search for and use information?

Two weeks ago, at an INMA conference in Oxford, I met Monica Bulger, an Education PhD, she was giving a speech covering the notion of cognitive containers associated with devices such as the iPad (see her blog). Then, at a dinner at Exeter College, in a room right out of a Harry Potter movie set, she discussed her work at the University of California Santa Barbara where she investigated her students’ use of Web searches.

Dr. Bulger took 150 graduate and undergraduate students and asked them to write a 1 to 2 pages recommendation for the use of computers in the classroom (she verified that the question was not already treated in Wikipedia). They had 50 minutes to complete the assignment.

The goal of the experiment was ‘to disprove the fact that information is simply a matter of access, and after that, everything else is easy. I wanted to show the highly sophisticated cognitive process taking place. No matter how sophisticated machines are, research still requires a bit of work’.

Among here findings (details here):

— Students who bring academic experience to an online research task are more likely to succeed than those with technical expertise alone: ‘Without the essential literacy skills of gauging credibility and synthesizing materials to form and communicate an understanding, the ease of information access afforded by the online environment does not matter’.

— The highest performing students use copy/paste to organize their thoughts. Copy/paste is usually seen as a plagiarism tool rather than as an organizing one. But in the experiment, students with the highest academic background used copy/paste to collect phrases from various references and later built their text around it.

— Younger students tend to be more opinionated than their elders; they begin to write  their essay after only seeing 5 URLs, and they extract sources mostly to support their beliefs. Those with deeper background (graduates) gathered much more information (15-20 URLs) before beginning the writing process.

Google is the source. Logically, students should have gone to the ERIC database; the Education Resources Information Center, is the reference for texts about education and teaching. Although rather frustrating, according to Monica Bulger, ERIC should have been the first source on the subject. Instead, 98% of the students flocked to Google. (Actually, the terms “Laptops in the classroom” yields 87 references on the subject in ERIC, most of them, though, posterior to Dr. Bulger’s research conducted late 2007).

— Search processes showed a definite lack of imagination on the students part. For instance, they made little or no effort to restructure search terms. Many even copied and pasted the entire phrase “Should laptops be used in classrooms” into Google. Almost none of them had the idea to widen the scope of the work, or to look at it from a different perspective. To put it another way, there is no divergence whatsoever in their ways to search, all seemed to follow the same preset template.

— Most of the students performed rather a small number of actions, going though 18 different web sites to find 2 or 3 quotable sources, this without much difference between graduates and undergraduates.

Let’s add some perspective to this research and see how it could impact information gathering and processing.

On the positive side, the more someone is literate, in the classic sense, the more this individual is likely to distance him/herself from what he/she finds. In practical terms, a better course of action looks like hiring individuals with strong academic backgrounds, first, and teaching them journalistic skills later. In real life, it depends on the kind of journalism involved.

On the more negative side: It seems hard to get “out of the box” thinking from students; same search terms, more or less same sources. That leaves little room for innovation here.

There is little doubt that the overwhelming use of technology such as search engines – and the preeminence of Google in that field — tends to flatten global knowledge. Let’s not forget that Google’s algorithm is based on popularity rather than relevance; the PageRank system acts as some kind of popular voting in which links are the ballots. The consequence is a self-sustaining phenomenon in which superficial research will value the most popular results which, in turn, are linked and gain in popularity, and so on.

And, unfortunately, most of the searches are superficial. ‘It is certain that an overwhelming amount of information reduces serendipity’, says Monica Bulger. ‘Over a thousand of results, we tend to select the top five’.

This leads to three conclusions:

1 / Every month, about 88 billion searches are performed on Google. This represents about 65% of all searches in the US, close to 90% in France where I live. This dominance needs to be addressed with focused user education. In classes, universities, journalism schools and newsrooms, people should be shown how to formulate queries and refine search terms; how to expand the scope of a search and trump the algorithm in order to generate serendipitous results. Search is a science; without proper knowledge of its use, Search will become a voodoo controlled by a small elite; the rest of the crowd will be left with poor skills, without the ability to go below the surface of lowest common denominator search output.

2 / More broadly, Dr. Bulger’s work demonstrates the primacy of cultural background over specialized technical skills. She has shown such background to be a discriminant factor used to interpret and integrate search results. That same background should also be helpful when using a more classical approach, involving thesauri topics, associated terms, dictionaries.

3 /  Finally, time is a factor — and the ultimate luxury in looking for information. If Monica Buldger’s students would have been given a few days instead of fifty minutes, the level of divergence between their findings, the overall diversity would have been much broader. The most creative students would have ventured into “lateral” queries, riskier paths, instead of sticking to the most immediately productive (or supposed to be) ones. Dead-ends are not always dead-ends, they can breed creativity, openings and breakthroughs.

And by the way, this exactly what journalism is about.

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