This will probably come to no surprise to anyone who’s taught an introductory university course that requires students to do research, but for all the time they spend online, students remain uncertain about how to find credible information. A new study by Northwestern University researchers demonstrates that when performing a wide range of information-seeking activities online, students often relied on the first link that Google provided, suggesting that coming up first on Google confers credibility. The students were able to recognize .edu and .gov as rating higher in credibility than other sites, but falsely included .org in their catalogue of credible sites, with most not realizing it is available for purchase like .com or .net (as I have demonstrated by purchasing vraga.org).
But while we shake our heads at their naivite, we might be missing the underlying cause. A recent poll shows that teens and adults alike trust technology firms like Google more than traditional media outlets – and even Facebook scored more highly than “the media.” Although this study has flaws – it is unclear how exactly “trust” or “the media” are defined – it demonstrates that students belief in the search results provided by Google may not be unreasoned.
Of course, that is not to say that it is rational. Google is known for offering little clarity on how its search rankings are returned. And with Google branching out to owning new businesses, including its purchase of ITA-software, which is linked to airline flight information, many are now calling for some kind of regulation to ensure equality and that Google does not unfairly favor its own interests. This call seems reasonable, for although Google does not have a clear monopoly over search, especially with the growth of its competitor Bing, it still maintains 65 percent of the search market.
Meanwhile, we are left pondering why our students trust technology firms like Google, Apple, and Microsoft, more than the media. But understanding that their use of Google for results is driven by their trust and faith in the company may provide the key to deepening their understanding of the media environment.