Tony DePrato Chief Technology Officer, St. Andrew’s Episcopal School, Jackson/Ridgeland Mississippi

Tony Deprato analyses the potential risk involved in telling students to 'Google it', and the impact that search engine bias can have on learning and understanding. 

There was a time when I would work with teachers and students and teach them how to execute advanced Google searches. I learned my Google skills from an original guide published at Stanford University. These were the same skills I used in university to conduct deep dive research journeys into the library consortium required to complete my papers.

I was really excited when a public search engine supported boolean logic, meta data analysis, and html tag matching. To be clear: Google was the best. In the last few years though, something has happened. Google still has all the tools, but the results on some topics do not seem to yield all the available information. I have no idea why. I am not sure if it is the algorithm, regional filters, etc. All I know is, if I use different search engines, I receive different results. 

Recently, a few podcasts I listen to have been complaining about the fact that search results seem to be curated. I am highly doubtful this is the case, but I do think based-on ad buys and other revenue generating practices, it is possible some information is being down ranked into the realm of obscurity. I decided to conduct a simple test. The results were, in short, troubling. They were not troubling because they were controversial. They were troubling because I immediately realized that educators, educational technology teams, and school leadership need to replace the old meme of ‘Google It’ with the new meme of ‘Search It’ before a full generation of children become lost in a very tight and opaque information space.

Gavin Newsome and Farmers in India

There were two stories trending that had come up in recent podcasts. The first, the recall election of California Governor Gavin Newsome. The second, the ongoing protests of farmers in India. 

One was political to the United States, and the other was political to India. 

I decided to test the top ranked results from Google.Com, DuckDuckGo.Com, and Yahoo.com.

The search term “newsom recall petition” yielded these results.

The main conclusion to draw here is that each service has decided that different aspects of the topic are more important than others. That might seem convenient, but another way to think about this is that the services made a decision for you before you searched.

I am in the United States, and the Gavin Newsome search is very political here, whereas the Indian farmers story is not as political here. Here is what happened with the next search.

Google, DuckDuckGo, and Yahoo all return very similar results, and in similar formats when the search term “India Farmers” was used.

The initial reaction, local political content is being curated, but international political content is being fairly searched and displayed. 

I would say the more likely scenario is that the content is again based-on what the search engine believes you want to see. Notice, I am not logged into any of these services with an account. Anyone using an account, like a G-Suite for Education Account, would have additional data being used to determine what to be displayed. 

This applied to any search engine or browser that allows for accounts. This is not just a Google issue. 

The problem is still the same, the Indian farmers search feels better than the Gavin Newsome search. A better outcome would be to display the best results connected to the search terms and parameters regardless of the user profile.

I did two more simple tests using a US politician and a very generic term, the city of Seattle. 

I am not going to show the US politician because some of the results were not safe for work. That means, one search was normal and fairly historical. The other was scandalous and displayed angry messages from social media. Again, questionable.

Here are the results from the generic search term “Seattle” under the ‘News Tab’.

Now, imagine every student in your class just used one search engine to explain the current issues facing the city of Seattle? 

How does that feel as an educator?

Solutions to Search and Research

I know many schools use paid databases. I have worked with four large schools between 2013-2020. I have seen a steady decline in the use of databases. I think there is an immediate need to review the practice and policies around using paid databases. 

Many schools are anti-Wikipedia. Maybe it is time to be pro-database. Databases require time and training, and working with the data is admittedly more difficult. Maybe the benefits now outweigh the cost.

Aside from using paid databases, schools should stop saying “Google It”. Simply switch to “Search It”. That is an easy move in the correct direction.

Curricula need to be amended to introduce search engines at different levels. There are search engines for all kinds of niche content. 

Finally, I believe it is time schools invest in building pages that help people search. This is not that difficult to do, and it is very cheap (if not free). Having a community page that delivers a custom search concept would immediately eliminate most of these public search engine issues. 

If you believe your school might be interested in building a custom search page, we can work on that together. Use the email below if there is interest in attending a webinar workshop to review how it can be done on various platforms and in various countries.

Search Engines You Can Test Out