I spent the evening tonight working with my son, Harrison, as he tried to complete a report about a particular kind of wood.
Harrison’s pretty sharp (of course!) and I didn’t have to help much. So I got to observe as he struggled with Google, Bing and Yahoo! to find the information he needed. A few interesting observations:
People instinctively ask questions. Harrison kept typing stuff like ‘what is the life span of tiete rosewood’. The Big 3 responded with great answers like the life span of hardwood floors. Great, if he’s researching a new floor. Useless if he’s asking how the tree functions.
Information quality is nil. While brand favoritism may keep us safe when searching for the best gaming console or television, search engines are far, far away from being useful tools for meaningful research. I had to help Harrison filter out all sorts of useless search spam, including pages about rosewood lobster bottle openers (?) and sites with about 10 useful words surrounded by PPC ads for Viagra.
Search engines cultivate an air of legitimacy. Google, Bing and Yahoo! all try to tell us that they’re so brilliant, so all-encompassing, that we can find anything we need. Truth is, though, that they’re just lots of machines, linked together. Those machines can suck in lots of text. They can spit it back out again. But they can’t categorize information in a truly meaningful way. Google is a pile of words, not a librarian.
Tyranny of the majority rules. Since most people are more concerned about porn and cheap consumer goods than they are about research, the search engines cater to their needs. That stops being OK when they also start sucking the life out of other resources that might offer useful information for people trying to actually learn something.
Am I bitter? Actually no. But I do think it’s important we all realize that search engines aren’t truly a research tool. Nor can they replace our own brains as research tools. Not yet, anyway.
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