How many times a day do you use Google? if you are like most people online, you use Google several times per hour. Indeed, on average when you add up a quick search for this and a quick search for that you spend one hour a day on Google. And when you complete a search, what do you click on? According to one study, almost six out of ten people click on the first link, with only 12% of individuals clicking on anything below the third-placed result. In other words we believe that Google gives us the best possible links at the top of the page.
Except research now shows – at least in healthcare – this is not true. Google gives us only its best guess at what is “right”. Google makes no value judgements about the content of what it recommends to us, indeed it does not even have tests for veracity. In other words, sometimes what Google provides as the number one result is tosh. Yet we click on it.
In an analysis of Google search results on health issues researchers from the University of South Carolina found that 28% of what Google provided was not even related to the search terms given. Some help Google was there..! But of the remaining information which was related to the search terms only 43% was accurate. In other words, in this study the researchers found that almost six out of ten of the items Google provided were wrong; plain wrong.
Google has built up a great deal of trust, but on the basis of this study that trust is misplaced. In Google’s defence their mathematical algorithm which produces the search results cannot actually check the truthfulness and accuracy of the results. That is up to us. However, search behaviour shows we tend to accept what Google provides – and we should not.
When I was doing research whilst at university I was taught that you had to “triangulate” information. If somebody from one institution claimed something you had to find two other people from different establishments who also found the same thing before you could accept it as true. Otherwise it was just an idea, a possibility, a theory.
How many times do you “triangulate” Google search results? How many times do we visit alternative websites to find out if the information we were provided by the number one result was indeed true? How many times do we check the accuracy of what we were provided?
There is another issue uncovered by this new research study. The most inaccurate results provided by Google were those from blogs and product review sites. Yet these are the two areas on which Google’s results are now focused. So not only are we lazy and thereby sometimes getting inaccurate information, but Google’s algorithm is actually making it more likely that we get poor material in the first place.
What can we do about it? Well, we can take more time, check with more than one of Google’s search results and even use other search engines. But to do that requires a wholesale change in behaviour for many people and behavioural change is tough.
So are we doomed to a future swirling in a sea of inaccuracy? Or should Google devise some kind of truthfulness and accuracy test? What do you think?
Graham Jones is an Internet Psychologist who studies the way people use the online world, in particular how people engage with businesses. He uses this knowledge to help companies improve their online connections to their customers and potential customers and offers consultancy, workshops, masterclasses and webinars. He also speaks regularly at conferences and business events. Graham is an award-winning writer and the author of 32 books, several of which are about various aspects of the Internet. For more information connect with me on Google+