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Last Updated: Tuesday, 6 April, 2004, 07:11 GMT 08:11 UK
Life beyond Google
Anecdotal evidence suggests that thanks to Google, the web offers information on everything to everyone. But, we have yet to see empirical evidence to back up such claims, argues Dr Eszter Hargittai.

Eszter Hargittai (Photo by Olivia Starr)
Eszter Hargittai questions Google's dominance
The problem with assuming that anyone can find anything on the web using Google is twofold.

First, it reflects the assumption that providing people with an internet connection will give them what they need to make the most of the medium.

Second, it puts too much emphasis on the role of one proprietary service in people's information-seeking behaviour.

Findings from a study I conducted on the average person's ability to find information on the web suggest that there is great variability in whether people can locate different types of content and their efficiency in doing so.

These results imply that simply offering an internet connection to those without access will not alleviate differences.

Rather, providing training is a necessary component of making the medium a useful tool for everyone.

Status symbol

The problem with the overwhelming focus on Google is that we end up putting too much faith in one proprietary service without knowing where the profit-seeking goals of the company may lead its quality down the road.

Google headquarters
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Referring to Google has become the high-culture status symbol of web use.

When presented with an information-seeking task, the supposed savvy searcher quickly suggests the use of Google.

However, just like simply referring to the latest opera at the Met should not be equated with expertise in the genre, a throw-away comment about Google should not make us think people know how to find information online.

Knowing about Google does not equal knowing how to use Google, or any other search engine for that matter, effectively.

Today's search engines are not evolved enough to guess what we mean when we type in a single-word search query while looking for answers to complex questions.

Yet research has shown that the majority of users employ such limited strategies when using search engines.

Moreover, although it may be hard to believe, many people do not know about Google and even some of those who do never use it.

Seek and find

The good news for the Googleless is that you do not need to use any one particular search engine to make the most of the Web.

Computer mouse in use
How you search the web is important
User studies suggest that the particular strategies people employ to look for content is a more important predictor of their ability to find material than what specific search engine they use.

As long as users know to include more than one word in their query or add quotation marks around some of the terms in certain cases, they will be likely to find a match regardless of the search engine.

I am not anti-Google and in fact use its services daily, but it is important to remember that it is a privately-held company with no obligation to serving the public interest.

We should tread with caution when thinking of it as the be all and end all of access to information online.

Google is not the only way to find information online and not everyone uses Google.

But, most importantly, many people neither use Google nor know how to find information on the web, making the internet in general a source of only limited information for many.

Eszter Hargittai is an Assistant Professor at Northwestern University in the US, who has studied the inequalities in people's ability to effectively use the web.

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