The Google Generation has Weak Google-fu

Some people say the usage of Google can tell you things the user. For example, that Google users are more internet savvy, or that Google usage correlates with income. I can’t imagine this correlation beyond the fact that “poor people don’t have computers, and therefore can’t access Google,” but those were indeed some of the results from research conducted a few years ago among 1000 American Internet users. But recent a new study has suggested that the “Google generation” (those who grew up with the Internet) actually are not good at using Google, and that it is not even the most efficient search engine. I was shocked to hear this, so I took to Google and began my investigation.

The Google Generation

A hundred and fifty-six students among five universities were interviewed about their research habits. Sixty of them had researchers follow their research process within a library. Most of them used Google, and when they didn’t, they generally thought the other search engines worked like Google. Basically, they had no idea how search engines organize search results, or how to use other features to maximize what they actually want to find, not just millions of pages of unrelated information. In other words, students demonstrated weak Google-fu.

True Google-fu mastery takes years of dedication

This isn’t really news to the academic world. In 2008, the British Library and Joint Information Systems Committee (JISC) came out with a study saying the “Google Generation” is not particularly web-literate, and that people from every age-group are gradually losing patience for navigating through results, and delays in their searches.

To put it one way, we are rapidly becoming fast-processing information-grabbing biological machines with lowered attention spans and less patience. It’s no wonder the average length of shots in films fell from 8-10 seconds in the 1960’s to 3-4 seconds in 2005. In fact, according to UnspokenCinema:

“The fastest film made between 1902 and 1909 has an ASL [average shot length] of 15.8 seconds while the slowest one made between 2000 and 2006 has an ASL of 10.01 seconds.”

The Google Wars

I have no problem with Google, and since I know how to use it well, I generally have no problem finding whatever I’m looking for. But since Google is the most popular website in the entire world, there has been research specifically on its performance. The online research and analytics service Experian Hitwise reported that only 67% of searches performed through Google were successful.

The researchers recorded how many searches from Google resulted in users actually clicking a link that came up. Microsoft’s Bing had an 80% “success rate,” and Yahoo topped both of them with 81%. We can’t really call these “success rates,” because whether or not the link actually yielded the information that the user wanted is beyond the scope of the research, but such a research project would be extremely difficult to conduct. Likely, you would have to ask people to submit “Was this the information you wanted?” surveys after every link; and as I mentioned above, Googlers don’t tolerate delays in their search efforts.

Here in Japan, people have been utilizing Yahoo!’s service more than any other search engine. In fact, it’s the most popular website in the country. But Google is the most popular worldwide (note: Google Japan is ranked #2 after Yahoo! Japan), and research has shown that the longer people use the Internet, the more likely they are to use Google. Indeed, it’s important to keep an eye on the Internet giant. After all, it’s not only changing our lifestyles, but it’s changing the way we speak.

I’m not suggesting that Google is a problem; it’s just that users are unfortunately too often ignorant about how it works (“It’s not me, it’s you”). For the less savvy users, though, alternative search engines may be more useful.

What this Means for Us

I would never say that the world needs to get off the Internet, and I don’t put any blame on anyone or any company. However, some people argue that services like Twitter is causing people to only read the news, for example, in 2-sentence chunks (or 140 characters, to be more specific), saying that this is a problem. However, Twitter didn’t cause lower attention spans – it just filled the demand for easy access to concise information. I too disliked it until I actually joined Twitter myself. Now I know that it makes me more resourceful.

So while we have to acknowledge the fact that we are certainly “quickening” our attention spans, we should use the technology available to us in the most efficient way possible, not demand limiting our usage. Yes, we are constantly connected, and there are problems associated with that; but the tradeoff is that we are astronomically more informed about the world than before the internet allowed us to search for important things like education, international news stories, or medical information. Or, you know… pictures of a cat drop-kicking a dog in the face.

In the end, we should be emphasizing that people learn how to use these advanced technologies (think Google isn’t advanced? Then you might be one of the people the studies above refer to), instead of just introducing people to it. The scientists of the future will be wired like we’ve never seen in previous generations, and if they don’t know how to access the information, there’s no point in having it. As chief executive of the British Library, Lynne Brindley, aptly said about the implications of the Library’s study with the JISC:

“Libraries have to accept that the future is now. At the British Library we have adopted the digital mindset and have seized many of the opportunities new technology offers to inspire our users to learn, discover and innovate.”

Photo Credits: Beware the Master and Jobs & Schmidt Kung-fu
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