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Why Google might not be the answer

By Sarah Klein

With millions of kids all across the U.S. heading back to school this week, it's only a matter of time before your child needs to use the Internet for homework.

When looking for a little online help, most teens and college students make Google their first stop, so much so that it’s become an everyday verb. Don’t know the author of the book? Google it. Don’t know the right steps for a science project? Google it.

But that may not be the savviest approach, according to a recent study from Northwestern University published in the International Journal of Communication. The study found that college students are so trusting of Google results that they only bother clicking on the links that show up at the top of each page.

“Many students think, ‘Google placed it number one, so of course it’s credible,’” said Eszter Hargittai, associate professor of communication studies at Northwestern and one of the authors of the study. But that’s a problem, she points out, because Google rankings aren’t based on credibility. Instead they earn their placement through a mixture of search-engine optimization and how much a page is linked to by other web pages.

“We found that a website’s layout or content almost didn’t matter to the students,” Hargittai said. “What mattered is that it was the number one result on Google.”

The college students in the study were also likely to use sites like Yahoo!, SparkNotes, MapQuest, AOL, and—perhaps most troublesome—Wikipedia. Much of the user-generated content on the online encyclopedia is notoriously unreliable but is still trusted by the majority of younger users.

Even those sites that at first glance seem more credible—like those with .gov, .edu, or .org addresses—may not always be dependable. As Hargittai points out, anyone can register a .org domain name, so there’s no guarantee it’s any higher quality than a .com site.

Parents—as well as teachers—can help by explaining what makes a web site trustworthy. If your children don’t get this kind of guidance at school, take a few minutes to sit with them at the computer and model a successful Google search. It doesn’t matter so much what link is number one or what brand it represents, but where the information comes from and who is behind it.

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