Many young people are solely using Google and other brand-name search engines to conduct research, regardless of the credibility of the sites these engines list, a recently published study suggests.
"Search engine rankings seem extremely important," said Eszter Hargittai, associate professor of communication studies at Chicago's Northwestern University and one of the study's authors. "We found that a website's layout or content almost didn't even matter to the students. What mattered is that it was the number one result on Google."
Researchers at Northwestern conducted the study among 1,060 first-year students in the spring and winter of 2007 in the United States. They then used a random sample of 102 first-year students to carry out followup observational sessions, where students were asked to perform certain online tasks as researchers watched.
The students in the followup group had an average of 6.3 years of experience using the internet, and spent about 17 hours a week on the web.
The students used a five-point scale, with one being "never" and five being "very often" on their reasons for visiting a given website.
The study findings show that checking to see who the author is was ranked 3.3 overall by the students, while checking the qualifications or credentials of the author scored 2.8. A preference for brand-name search engines emerged, researchers said.
"We find evidence of users' trust in search engines with respect to the credibility of information they find when using these services," wrote the researchers. "To complete many of the assigned tasks, students often turned to a particular search engine as their first step."
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The researchers found that often students would click on the first site listed in a search engine. They also found many professed a fondness for Google.
"Our findings suggest that students rely greatly on search engine brands to guide them to what they then perceive as credible material simply due to the fact that the destination page rose to the top of the results listings of their preferred search engine."
They believe young people should be educated about properly assessing online content credibility, something that's not commonplace in schools.
The study is published in the International Journal of Communication's fourth issue of 2010.