Teaching strong internet search skills

The internet is a virtually endless source of information and nowadays it is most people’s first port of call whenever they need to access reference material on any given topic. This is particularly true of the younger generation, for whom it has in many cases superseded traditional text books as the research tool of choice. With so many students now having portable technology like tablets and smartphones at their disposal, a few clicks can be a much more efficient way to get the information they need than flicking through the pages of heavy tomes, but how do they know which information is reliable and which not? In this digital world, good internet search skills and the ability to separate the wheat from the chaff in search results are essential skills for teachers to impart to their students.

There are a number of tell-tale signs that might indicate a particular site’s content could be less than authoritative. Poor spelling and grammar, for example, should ring instant alarm bells for teachers and students alike, and content which has not been updated in a long time might also not be the most dependable; but they also need to be able to look beyond the obvious to ensure that information is current and correct. Students must hone their internet search skills by learning how to verify the information they find — cross-checking against other sources, looking at things like biographies and bibliographies which could help to ascertain an author’s credibility, and recognising domain names such as .ac.uk and its American equivalent .edu which denote that the publisher is a university and therefore more likely to be accurate than a commercial website. These are just some of the ways in which teachers can help their students to judge whether a site’s content can be trusted. Wikipedia is a vast source of information, but teachers should impress on their students that it can’t always be trusted implicitly; they should always bear in mind that the online encyclopaedia can be updated by anyone, and there have been some recent high-profile cases of malicious updating of content on the site which illustrate the importance of corroborating all material before using it in any assignments.
internet search skills
Good internet search skills start with choosing relevant search terms and this is something which, to some extent, comes with experience. Educational video from BBC Active on the topic at hand can help to provide insight in this regard, but the ability to use the tools available in order to narrow down searches to yield relevant results is also important. Some of the most basic of these also happen to be the most useful, for example enclosing search terms in quotes to return only exact matches, filtering results by country or date and using words and symbols known as search operators to include or exclude particular results.

It’s useful for teachers to instruct their students in the use of these operators, for example, joining search terms with AND and OR to return results with both of the terms, or either. The ‘site’ operator can also be incredibly handy, used like this: site: www.bbc.co.uk “King Lear” or site:.ac.uk “King Lear” to restrict searches, in this example to the BBC website or to UK universities respectively.  Google’s advanced search can also apply these filters without the need for the user to memorise each search operator. From here you can progress to some advanced operators which can further narrow down search results, one useful example of which is the ‘allintitle’ operator. Preceding a search with this operator e.g. allintitle: internet search skills will locate pages containing all three words in their titles, thus eliminating results where the words are buried in the text and may perhaps be less relevant. Teachers may also wish to explore similar modifiers such as ‘inurl’, ‘filetype’ and others.

Search engines are constantly being refined in an effort to deliver more relevant results, and the most significant recent development is Google’s Hummingbird search algorithm, which came into operation around August 2013. Among other improvements, Hummingbird aims to make results more meaningful by interpreting the search query more accurately and pulling together results that take into account the quality of the site’s content, its inbound links and its general trustworthiness, in combination with a range of other factors.

Google’s Knowledge Graph is also a very handy tool to share with students. Launched in 2012, it was designed to “provide answers, not just links”, and it’s responsible for the boxes we now often see in search results giving facts about the item searched. It also has other more sophisticated functionality such as the ‘vs’ search modifier which will bring up side-by-side information cards about the two search terms for comparison purposes, e.g. searching ‘empire state vs the shard’ will quickly display the respective heights and other facts about these two structures.

While it is certainly beneficial to educate students on the vast and ever-advancing capabilities of search engines and algorithms, there’s no substitute for developing their own critical eye when it comes evaluating to web content, and teachers can help to foster this ability by starting them off with a solid foundation of good internet search skills in the classroom.