Science, Pseudoscience, & Media Literacy

How Do You Search for Information?

search engine logos

This post is an only mildly coherent hodgepodge of things related to how we search for information. I like looking stuff up. I’m curious about the world, and I want to know more, so I spend a lot of time searching. Reading other people’s blog posts often sends me over to Google or Wikipedia to find out more about something that was mentioned.

By the way, I like how old-school the above image is. I remember Lycos (which still exists) and Altavista (which still exists as part of yahoo) were around when I was in high school. I also remember that the Yahoo directory was the first tool I used for searching back in the day.

I always use Google as my search engine, including Google Images and Google Scholar (which is for research papers). This post is Google-focused since that’s what I’m familiar with. And just out of curiosity, does anyone use Bing? And if so, why?

Google

If you want to search for something on someone’s blog but they don’t have a search widget set up, you can use Google. If I enter “site:mentalhealthathome.org mashed potato,” the list of results will be posts on which I’ve talked about mashed potato brains.

If you’re looking for something specific, putting your search query in quotations will show results that are an exact match. You can use the Boolean operators AND and OR; they must be in all caps. The equivalent of the Boolean NOT is to put a “-” in front of a term, e.g. rodent -rabbit.

Are you curious what other people are curious about? Google Trends will tell you.

Want to get fancy with your image searching? Advanced Image Search lets you get a lot more specific with what you’re searching for.

Google cached pages

Some sites won’t let you view an article without signing up for the site. There may be a way around that. Unless a website specifically tells it not to, Google will cache a version of pages it looks at and make that publicly visible. When you’re looking at search results, there’s a little upside down triangle to the right of the URLs it displays. If Google has a cached version, when you click on the triangle, a box will pop up so you can click “cached.” You can sometimes view the full article that way.

example of how to find Google cached version of a search

You can also find the cached version by searching for cache:URL, e.g. cache:https://mentalheatlhtathome.org

Google getting fancy

For some search queries, Google will try harder to be helpful by showing additional information above and beyond the basic search results.

Featured snippets are shown above the the search results. The type of information it shows depends on the search. If you search for purple people eaters, it will prominently display information about the song. If you search for a sports team, the rich results might include game dates and scores.

Sometimes, when Google likes me, it will show a featured snippet for my Psych Meds Made Simple book page, as shown in the image below. In this case, it’s not displaying the “meta description” for the page I entered using my SEO plugin; instead, it’s pulled text from one of the review snippets I have on the page, which presumably Google thinks would be relevant to searchers.

Goo

Another fancy way of displaying information is in “knowledge graphs,” which appear in the top right corner of the first page of search results. These pull together bits and pieces from different sources about authors, books, public figures, artistic works, etc.

Featured snippets and knowledge graphs aren’t ads, and while websites can make their site Google-friendly, only Google decides when and if to display a site in these ways.


Wikipedia

Anybody can edit a Wikipedia page, unless it’s a page specifically restricted to approved users. There’s a small army of of volunteer editors that help keep everything on the up and up. It’s possible that you’ll come across stuff on Wikipedia that’s a complete load of crap, but I find it’s not that hard to evaluate quality.

Wikipedia articles are always supposed to have a neutral, encyclopedic tone. If you’re reading an article that sounds biased, that should be a red flag.

The images below come from the Black Lives Matter page, chosen because I thought it was pretty likely to have some dispute going on. Banners like the one below are a way for Wikipedia editors let readers know that there are issues with a page or section that haven’t been resolved yet. It’s basically a read with caution sign that stays put until someone gets around to fixing it.

Wikipedia disputed neutrality banner

Referencing

Information on Wikipedia pages is supposed to reference the original source of the information. At the bottom of every Wikipedia page is a reference list, but most of the time, if you hover over the hyperlinked reference number, a box will pop up with the information, as shown below. You can then evaluate whether or not it seems like a credible reference. If there’s more than one reference cited for a given statement, that can make the information more credible.

Wikipedia reference detail

If there are no references at all for something that’s stated as a fact or opinion, that should send up red flags. Other people’s opinions can be included in a Wikipedia article, but there need to be a reference and the person must have some level of significance. If someone’s referencing Uncle Bob, that’s probably not so useful.

Talk pages

Every Wikipedia page has a corresponding talk page. This is the table of contents from the Black Lives Matter talk page. This is where discussions happen about what to include and what not to include, and how the page should be written. This can also be useful information in evaluating a page’s content.


Especially right now, with so much misinformation flying around, it’s important to use some critical thinking and verify information before assuming that it’s true. If two different sources are saying different things about the same topic, that warrants further investigation. If one source is expressing their vehement belief and the other source is expressing independently verifiable facts, that should send a pretty clear message. Not that I’m talking about anyone in particular…

Okay, so that’s my thoughts on how I search for information. Do you have any go to sources that you rely on?

39 thoughts on “How Do You Search for Information?”

  1. reading this post reminded me of Ask Jeeves. It was one of the popular search engines quite a few years ago. For me, I use Google. I’d never actually thought of venturing out and trying different ways of searching for information until this post, so thank you.

  2. I also use duckduckgo. Aside from the anarchist/libertarian desire to minimise the number of people with my data, they present search hits in strict relevance order, whereas Google adjusts the ranking based on your previous search data.

    Wikipedia… I have to say I would be more comfortable using Wikipedia for relatively trivial or uncontentious issues. It would not really be where I would think to go for something that causes a lot of discussion e.g. BLM, unless I was just using it as a way of getting to primary sources.

    1. Sometimes for really contentious pages Wikipedia will limit editing if people keep trying to wreck a page. It makes a difference who’s editing a page and how actively they’re on top of it. I’ve come across some contentious pages that are really well maintained, and some uncontentious pages that are total crap.

  3. I use Google, but I have also used Bing. I also will sign in at msn.ca. There you have a number of choices like, Politics, Health, Canada. You can also create a page with topics you want to follow. It can bring up sites from across the web. I am careful though on which sites I trust. If it has an institution like Mayo Clinic I know I can trust the information on that site.

  4. I tried using Duck, Duck, Go for a while but unfortunately it simply is not very good. Google just comes up with more sites. We had a boatload of search engines years ago but you really had to use a boolean search to get anything really pertinent.

  5. I use Google on my phone and Bing on my new laptop. I find it interesting sometimes to compare the results. Forex, when looking up a song, Google always spits up the Wikipedia entry near the top. Bing never does. I love Wikipedia too and sometimes go there directly. I look up lawyers on the bar sites, pictures on pixabay (like my ring tailed lemur), calories on CalorieKing, etc.

  6. We dislike search engines because they are consuming-focused: results are biased toward shopping and consumption. Even using the ask feature on a voice assistant seems biased towards buying shit, which is not usually our intention with learning.

    We use Google reverse image search. We upload a photo (or select the image on a phone) and it tells us what the image might be. Again, with consumption, you can upload a photo of an item you like, and it’ll show you how to buy one.

    Google reverse image search is how we started learning to identify plants and insects.

    A site called iNaturalist takes this a step further: if you geotag the photo you upload, it will suggest what flora, fauna, or fungus like that image have been previously reported in your geographic area by other users. Accounts on iNaturalist are free.

  7. Yep, I do know a person who still uses Bing, as he’s very concerned about his privacy and doesn’t like the way Google handles it, or what he heard about how Google handles people’s privacy. At the same time he’s not that technically advanced or even interested in such nitty-gritty things to dig deep and he uses Windows 10 which uses Bing by default in the system search so I believe it was the easiest option for him to start using Bing instead. As he mostly uses the Internet for very basic things it seems to work for him, or at least I’ve never heard him complain, though I’m not sure if Bing is any better at valuing its users’ privacy.

    1. Yeah, I wouldn’t imagine Microsoft is any better for privacy. I’ve never been that keen on Microsoft in general. I’ve always been an Apple girl and it used to annoy me that Microsoft Word had pretty much a monopoly before alternatives came along that actually did a good job at converting file formats.

  8. If it’s information I’ve never heard of or have familiarity with, I try what I can to limit the sites I visit to places that I know to be credible or that I’m confident I have the competency to assess. That being said, I also take into account their tendencies because, human.

    If it’s information I’ve never heard of and have no reliable areas to visit, I try to get a feel for what’s being said and estimate how credible it is based on what I see of credibility, like if the information is consistent amongst multiple websites, the history of the author, their ability to reason. Tick enough boxes, and they’re treated as leads to follow up on or sometimes sound for use.

    I treat information that I’ve never heard of as exceptions for searching though. I prefer to be extending on my competency by reading up on knowledge from reliable and well-known sources in my spare time.

    I don’t like randomly lingering on the internet exactly because it increases the likelihood that I’ll go looking for something I know nothing of when I can spend time learning something I know nothing of from somewhere credible, but that’s easier said than done.

  9. I use Google as a default, but I also love Wikipedia and use it quite often for anything knowledge-based that I need to know about. For that reason, I try to donate $10 to them every Christmas when they ask. I definitely appreciate how ads-free they are, and who wouldn’t? So I’m glad to donate. I use them often for stuff I need to know when I’m writing a novel, or really anytime I need to know anything. I also use Goodreads a lot to research books and authors, and I’ve gotten into YouTube more lately, but I’ve used it historically to watch woodworking and other instructional videos. I think I used it a lot back when I was getting into woodworking and needed to learn basic skills. I like how YouTube has videos of all kinds, though: music, issues of interest, old sporting events, anything you could need.

  10. I’ve been using Duck Duck Go for two or three years. The search seems very objective, and as someone said, there’s more of a sense of privacy.

  11. I’ve been a huge fan of Duck too, but gave up.
    If you want information, Google might be your best shot. If you want privacy, it’s best to stick withTor.
    You gain and lose in both ways and it’s up to you to pick what you want at the moment.

    Thanks for pointing out Wikipedia. This is also a great source of information for me, but it’s good to check the sources regularly, like you mentioned at the end.
    I never noticed the Talk section. This could be very useful if more people used it.

  12. Definitely Google Chrome but Edge on laptop and Silk on my Kindle. Each had it’s pros and cons like anything else really. I remember Yahoo, Internet Explorer, Firefox and MSN. I usually leave the default browser on to avoid duplication of software (advice once recommended) but I’m now partial to seeing what works best. For images, Edge is really good!

    1. If Wuthering Heights is set in Yorkshire, does that mean you can understand the dialogue of the servant Joseph? Because it might as well be written in a foreign language for all I can understand it.

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