4. Searching the internet

It can be challenging to know where to look to find authoritative websites and articles online.

Search engines

A search engine, such as Google or Bing, is a website that catalogs web content, allowing you to search for information based on your specified keywords.

How do search engines work?

Spiders

Search engines use internet robots (bots), sometimes known as ‘web crawlers’ or ‘spiders’, to index websites. The indexed and searchable web represents a minority of the overall content on the web.

Decorative The Internet: How Search Works (5m12s) explains how “spiders” scan the Internet to determine which search results show up first.

Site ranking

Search engines employ sophisticated algorithms to assess and rank websites, influencing the results displayed in a search. While various search engines utilize distinct algorithms, some common methods for ranking websites include:

  • how often a page is linked to from other sources.
  • how often the content is updated.
  • the trustworthiness of the domain.

Companies frequently utilize strategies like search engine optimization (SEO) to enhance their position in search engine rankings, leveraging algorithms in their favour. They also have the option to pay for top placement in search results through advertising. As a result, the initial results you see may not always be the most relevant to your search.

Decorative Read about how Google’s search algorithms analyse your search terms and the context to return webpage results that it determines are most relevant for you.

Issues around search algorithms

Search algorithms can:

In response to recent claims of bias, Google has stated that “While we take great care to present the most authoritative information, there are many cases where users can and will find information that’s not authoritative”. So, it is always important to evaluate the information you find (visit the next section of this module).

Filter bubbles

Ever noticed how search engines will suggest search terms to you as you are typing in the search bar? Seeing varied suggestions when someone else inputs the same words or letters illustrates the concept of a “filter bubble”. Eli Pariser coined the phrase “filter bubble” in 2011 to illustrate how the internet can give you a biased perspective of the world based on search engine algorithms, your past internet searches and the hyperlinks you have clicked on.

Screenshot: Google search box with a filter bubble.

Search engines’ auto-suggestions are based on real searches that people have done, and the results retrieved can vary by location. Someone searching for “Passport applications” will be directed to a different website depending on whether they are searching from the UK or Australia, and on their previous search history.

Watch the video in which Eli explains what a ‘filter bubble’ is, how search engines tailor their search results based on your search history, and how they can retrieve information that may not challenge or expand your perspective on the world.

Decorative Beware online “filter bubbles” (TED Talk – TED.com, 8m58s)

Privacy and search engines

Search engines may collect data on users’ search habits for targeted advertising.

Cookies

Search engines like Google, Bing, and Yahoo use cookies to track users’ activities and preferences.

Many websites use pop-ups or notifications to inform visitors that they use cookies to improve services, as part of compliance with privacy regulations, and to obtain user consent for tracking activities.

Screenshot of a website privacy policy
Screenshot: Politico. Cookies pop up on website page. Retrieved March 13, 2020.

Cookies are a small piece of data inserted by a web page into your browser. Cookies allow websites to remember you when you next visit the website. Learn more about privacy in the Digital security module.

Search engines that do not use cookies

Answer engines

Wolfram Alpha is an engine that allows you to ask questions in the search box. These are often science-based queries but can also be queries related to the arts and general knowledge.

Decorative Try searching for one of the following questions in Wolfram Alpha.

  • How many calories are contained in 10 peanut M&Ms?
  • Who won the best actor Academy Award (Oscar) in 1976?
  • Find words ending in “dog”.
  • Orbital path of Hubble space telescope

The database will then compute the answers and provide visualisations, where necessary, to answer your query.

Open access logo Open access materials

The ability to find relevant and credible information is a skill valued by employers. Do you know how to find scholarly research when you no longer have access to Library resources?

Many of the databases that the Library subscribes to only allow access to current Charles Sturt University staff and students. Alumni membership gives access to a limited number of Library databases. An alternative is to use open-access resources.

Open access (OA) refers to free and open online access to academic information. Open access publications available online include:

  • articles.
  • books and book chapters.
  • conference papers.
  • theses.
  • working papers.
  • data and images.

There are several ways to access Open Access resources:

Open educational resources (OER)

Find open educational resources (OER) – eBooks and eTextbooks, open journals, images, audio, video, and software.

Institutional repositories

An institutional repository is where university researchers deposit their academic work. Charles Sturt University Research Output CRO is Charles Sturts’ institutional repository, but you can find more open access repositories via OpenDoar.

Open access publishing

Not all articles are accessible as soon as they are uploaded by the authors. Some journal publishers may enforce an embargo, or a ban, on the articles being viewed by the public for 6 – 12 months or longer. Open Access explains more about open access publishing.

Open access journals and books

Licence

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Digital Skills: Assignment Essentials Copyright © 2024 by Charles Sturt University is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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