Friday, April 27, 2012

Asking the right questions in a Web search, Day #4--Searching and Evaluating like a Pro

In order to effectively evaluate a Website, you need to be able to ask the right questions to get you to the Website. If you can ask the right questions, your job as an evaluator is much simpler and easier. However, this seems to be the most difficult area for our students and for most of us.

To begin, many students, teachers, and general users do not understand how results are sorted in search results. In fact, some do not even know about search engines, so let's clarify:

  • Think of the Internet as a massive library. 
  • Think of a browser (Internet Explorer, Firefox, Safari, Chrome...) as a particular branch of the library.
  • Think of a search engine (Google, Bing...) as the librarian.
This comparison always helped my students: When you go to a library, you have the option of which branch you will go to just as you have the option of which browser you use to access the Internet. Each browser has certain highlights and problems just as each library branch many have slightly different books. However, at the end of the day, a library branch is a library branch and a browser is a browser. They all do the same thing--just with different perks. When you go to a library, you may have several librarians you can choose to speak to. Likewise, when you access the Internet via a browser, you have different search engines you can search. If you go to head librarian, he/she may have more knowledge to direct you to the right place just as if you go to the most common search engine, you may have better results. 

Google is just one of many places to begin a search. However, statistics show that most people begin their searches using Google. 

It is important to know how search engines (remember to think of them as librarians) filter and gather their results. Google uses a philosophy called PigeonRank to sort their results. Because of this system, you can actually edit they way your search results appear. Early search engines used to rank results by keywords. So, if you searched for a keyword, it would look for how often that keyword appeared in a site and that page would appear first. Well, marketers discovered this and started manipulating pages to get some keywords to appear more and, thereby, change search results. Studies show that links listed at the top of search results rankings get the most hits and therefore, the most viewers and potential for money. Now, Google and other search engines say they use more than 200 different factors to rank pages. In 2009, Google announced that it would use the Web history of its users to help rank results. Companies may also pay for their pages to be featured in different search results. Hence, companies also judge customer buying through search results. Search results have become a very powerful and lucrative industry--just look at Google. So, why should we be blind to searching?

So, remember that your own searching manipulates future search results. And, those search results manipulate your searching. It's a continuous cycle that all users need to fully understand. 

Right now about 15% of the world's information is online. If searching is an obstacle now, what will it be like in the future when the information doubles, triples? 

So, what can you do to search like a pro? First, you need to know what to search with. And, second, you need to know how to filter your results. 

What do you need to search with?
  • This is a great strategy to use with developing search words. 
  • Here is a great search process tutorial from 21st Century Information Fluency. 
  • These are both great starting places for helping your students formulate the right searching questions. 

How can you manipulate your search results? 
  • Google provides you with this tool
  • There are other, more kid-friendly search engines that schools can use (just remember that students will most likely not use those on their own time, so you want to still incorporate the search engine giants)
  • Microsoft provides this tutorial/example on searching with Bing
It's time to teach ourselves and our students how to search. It is now a required skill! 

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