When I talk to students and other researchers about maximising their research skills, I mention that Google (and Bing, Yahoo!, Ask.com, etc) isn’t the only tool available. But it’s the only tool that most students are aware of. This is worrying for two, inter-connected reasons. First: Google’s intelligence, usability, and ubiquity creates and encourages myopic research practices. We can literally type a question into the humble-looking Google search box and generally get an answer. However, if an answer isn’t forthcoming, or if it’s unsatisfactory, then we tend to give up – the mentality seems to be, “if it’s not on Google, it doesn’t exist”. Which leads me to the second reason Google worries me: Google (as well as Bing et al.) searches and indexes a tiny fraction of all online content.
This is what’s called the surface web or the visible web, and it has about 50 billion pages, give or take a few billion. And that seems like a lot. But the deep web – the stuff Google can’t see – is about 500 times that size. Think of it like an iceberg, with Google being able to index just the very tip.
The Google bubble
Our reliance on Google, and our unwillingness (or inability) to look beyond its admittedly powerful search capabilities, is a little like living in a bubble. It’s a large bubble, and it provides a lot of really good stuff, but there’s a world beyond its shiny, pearlescent walls.
I use Google every day. But it is limited. Doing deep research using only Google is like trying to build a house using balsa wood; you might get something that resembles a house, but it won’t be particularly strong, or last very long. Being a good researcher means being good at using Google, but it also means knowing when to not use Google. Part two of this post has a list of online sources to move us beyond the Google bubble.