September 19, 2007

Cornell U. Study Reveals Students’ Trust in Google

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According to a recent study completed at Cornell, students “trust Google’s positioning more than their rational judgments.” The study revealed that students are biased towards links that appear first when using a search engine such as Google.
The study obtained information through the use of “eye tracking,” where a small camera captures the reflection off a subject’s cornea to determine the position of the eye on the computer screen. According to Prof. Geri Gay, communication, co-author of the study, researchers were then able to know exactly what each subject looked at and for how long.
Twenty two Cornell undergraduates were randomly selected to participate in the study, and each was given 10 questions to find the answers to on Google.
The questions were either navigational, where the students were asked to find a particular website, or informational, where the students were asked to find a fact.
“The first link was proportionally clicked more often,” said Prof. Thorsten Joachims, computer science, another co-author of the study.
The researchers also manipulated the search results in two ways. For some subjects, the first 10 results appeared in reverse order, with the tenth result showing up first, and for others, the first two results were swapped.
“Even in [those conditions], link number one still got the most clicks,” said Joachims.
Many students, however, had eye movements that indicated they suspected something was amiss. They spent an average of 10.9 seconds looking over the abstracts when they appeared in the reverse order, compared to 6.5 seconds when they appeared in their normal order and 5.8 seconds when the first two results were swapped.
The study found that when normally using a search engine, the students read the titles and abstracts for the first two search results, and then skimmed through the rest.
Julieann Rosenberg ’11 said that information “starts getting less accurate” as one goes further through the search results.
“The best ones are at the top,” agreed Amanda Brief ’09.
According to Gay, students have become so habituated to using the first couple of results in a search that they do not think to look further down the list.
According to Google’s website, Google ranks search results based on how many links a site has from other sites. For example, if site A links to site B, Google considers that link as a “vote” for site B, which would push it up on the results list.
The ranking system, resultantly, does not ensure that the first link that appears from a search is the most relevant. Gay said that the top results could be very biased. That a site is popular does not mean that it is credible.
Gay added, “Scientists are always working to refine [the algorithms] but you still need to look at other sources, other articles, and their bibliographies too.”
One of the motivations for the study was to understand how people use search engines.
“We were wondering what goes through people’s minds when they’re searching. What are trusted reliable resources and how do we determine if it’s a good source or a bad source,” said Gay.