Whose answers?

I got a little philosophical after reading a couple of articles yesterday.

I remember some of my first experiences with a search engine.  I’m guessing that it was with Altavista.  I was impressionable, I guess.  I couldn’t get over how I could send a request out through a wire and get an answer back almost immediately.

I didn’t go to school with this technology.  We had libraries with books and stuff.  If you needed an answer to a question, you’d make the trip to the library before or after school or at lunch and start looking.  There was a sense of satisfaction that arose when you found the answer to your question.  It didn’t really even enter into consideration that there might be another resource in the library that had a different answer or a different take on the question – I had the answer.

I guess, in hindsight, I had a great deal of faith in our librarian that she would only make available to us resources that only had right answers.  After all, she got paid a lot of money to do what she did.  It had better be correct.  The school activities didn’t really make us explore alternative answers.  Our goal was to get the work done and then move on to the next task or hopefully go outside and play.

So, Altavista was a godsend.  I didn’t have to go to the library anymore and look in a book.  I could just search for it.

As we know now, the concept of search just exploded.  We now have so many search engines just a click away.

I remember sitting next to a friend at a computer meeting and his default opening webpage was a list of search engines – Google, Yahoo, Bing, Lycos, Dogpile, Canada.com, etc.

You might find this list interesting “Top 15 Most Popular Search Engines | October 2015“.  Check out the list of hits and you’ll see a clear winner.

Photo credit: wintersixfour from morguefile.com

I remember either hearing this in a presentation or in an article that I had read “Today’s student will find the answer to any research in the first 10 hits of Google Search”.

Of course, for my teacher-librarian friends, we know that this has spawned a whole teaching sub-industry of fact checking and reasonableness of results.  A great example of this is happening right before our eyes with the current election and the different spins on facts that the leaders are taking.  They’re all truthful to some and questionable to others.  It’s another case of whoever shouts the loudest wins.

Today’s search engine is considerably different than those that we cut our teeth on.  Now, there are legal disclaimers about content, the site provides current news feeds in addition to search, advertising is sold on the site, you get instant answers, you get related answers, the search engine does a spell check for you, some search engines track what you’re searching for and where you go next, etc.  A company can even pay to get higher placement in search results.

Search engines will even buy placement in your web browser based on the logic that the average user won’t change the default search engine.

In theory, if a search engine was looking to provide the correct and best answer, shouldn’t they all return the same results?  But just like newspapers and their points of view, search engines have different indexing and searching algorithms to return results.

There are so many factors that go into the choice of a search engine.  When someone expresses a preference for a particular search engine, I like to ask why.  So often, I’ll get the answer “because they give the best results”.  Really?  How do you know?  Are they factually correct more often than not or is it like a newspaper and gives you the slant that you’re comfortable with?

So, dear reader, if you’ve stuck with me this far – whose answers do you trust best and why?

Published by dougpete

The content of this blog is created by me at the keyboard or as a result of an aggregator of my daily reading under the title OTR Links. On Fridays, look for my signature post "This Week in Ontario Edublogs" where I try to share some great writing from Ontario Educators. The other regular post appears Sunday mornings as I try to start a conversation about things that have gone missing from our daily lives.

5 thoughts on “Whose answers?

  1. Now I have to admit, the only search engine I use is Google. Maybe I have to expand my repertoire. From a classroom perspective, I wonder if we could say the same about students. Are they exploring multiple search engines and looking critically at the results? Why the differences? I see some potential here for a media literacy activity (depending on the grade). Thanks for giving me more to think about, Doug!


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  2. Google is exploring a fact-checking algorithm that will boost a site’s position in its results based on the accuracy of that site’s information. That’s pretty incredible, and programmatically daunting. I can’t imagine how you distinguish between, for example, a site spewing pseudoscientific nonsense and a site *debunking* pseudoscientific nonsense.
    I use Google, but I swing to DuckDuckGo when I need to get away from “popular” results and my own bubble. I’ll also use Google while in an Incognito window so that it doesn’t tailor my results to my own profile.
    Good article, Doug. Search is super-fascinating.

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  3. In the early days there was a big difference between search engines. I switched to Google from AltaVista because AltaVista wasn’t crawling the web often enough for me. These days the web is bigger and crawling goes on constantly.

    I left Google origionally because Bing had better results for “Alfred Thompson” than Google did. 🙂

    From time to time I try out http://www.bingiton.com/ to compare Google and Bing results. Sometimes Bing wins and sometimes Google wins. Most often the difference is negligible. I use Bing for several reasons – some more logical than others. I like the Bing home page better and I get points for using Bing which I redeem for Amazon gift cards from time to time. And I am not a Google fan. From time to time I use Google as a back up but I find that I don’t need to do that very often.


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