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Thursday, 29th July 2010

New Research (Full Text): Not as Web Savvy as You May Think; Young People, Web Search, and Credibility

Great to see this very interesting research from such a respected researcher on web communication and web use as Eszter Hargittai.

The Headline Comes from a Northwestern University Announcement:

Google it. That's what many college students do when asked to read an excerpt of a play for class, write a resume or find the e-mail address of a politician.

They trust Google so much that a Northwestern University study has found many students only click on websites that turn up at the top of Google searches to complete assigned tasks. If they don't use Google, researchers found that students trust other brand-name search engines and brand-name websites to lead them to information.

The study was published by the International Journal of Communication. (Abstract and Full Text)

[Our Emphasis] "Many students think, ‘Google placed it number one, so, of course it's credible,'" said Eszter Hargittai, associate professor of communication studies at Northwestern. "This is potentially tricky because Google doesn't rank a site by its credibility."

What we also find interesting is that the students who participated in the study have grown up in, for lack of a better expression, Google world. Yet they have no idea about how it and other web search tools work. A great example for the importance of information literacy. Five or six years ago people said to us that a significant portion of the "lack of understanding" about web search would go away as users, especially younger ones, would get more familiar and comfortable with the technology. Well, it appears that it hasn't.

Btw, the phrase "how they work" doesn't mean an in-depth, several semester class about info retrieval, info seeking behavior, and other concepts.

Many of us can't put our cars on a lift, loosen various parts, and do a major overhaul on their cars, something they use everyday. However, while that's not possible (that's what a mechanic is for) we do know how to make it go forward and backwards, stop, place fuel in the car (and when to do it), remove a tire, maybe even change the oil. We're talking an understanding on the most basic level. What about the same thing in terms of search and how they work?

Back to the Announcement:

In the published, study 102 students at the University of Illinois at Chicago sat at computers with researchers. Each student was asked to bring up the page that's usually on their screen when they start using the Web.

The activity on their screens was captured on video as researchers gave the students a variety of hypothetical information-seeking tasks to perform online. Time and again, researchers watched students navigate to brand-name search engines--usually Google--and to brand-name websites to find information. Researchers also asked students questions about websites they chose.

After using Google to get to a website, this interaction occurred between a researcher and a study participant:

Researcher: "What is this website?"

Student: "Oh, I don't know. The first thing that came up."

"Search engine rankings seem extremely important," Hargittai said. “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."

Title: "Trust Online: Young Adults' Evaluation of Web Content"
by Eszter Hargittai, Lindsay Fullerton, Ericka Menchen-Trevino, and Kristin Yates Thomas
Source: International Journal of Communication 4 (2010), 468–494

Abstract and Full Text (27 pages; PDF; Free)

See Also: This is not the first time we mentioned Professor Hargittai today.

We also linked to the new issue of First Monday where she has a new paper co-authored with danah boyd titled, "Facebook privacy settings: Who cares? "

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