Safe Search Engine Alternatives to Google

Increasingly, school librarians feel a need for their students to access alternative search engines as safe alternatives to Google and the other standard general search engines. One way to do this is to make available collections of vetted or "juried" sites, many times selected by other educators and librarians. Some of my favorite such sites for secondary school students include the Internet Public Library (http://www.ipl.org/), Digital Librarian (http://www.digital-librarian.com/), and BUBL (http://bubl.ac.uk/).

There exist search engines on the Internet that search only sites similar to the three listed above. A lot of these are Google Custom Search engines, free to anyone who wants to sign up at http://www.google.com/cse/ . One such search engine is Infotopia, a Google CSE that I created last November 13, 2009.

Infotopia, http://www.infotopia.info , searches only sites previously selected by librarians, teachers, and educational and library consortia. I have designed Infotopia to search with Google Safe Search always on. No filtering needed, and you get all of the precision and search features of the regular Google search engine.

The Internet can be a useful information source for the experienced and discriminating user; however, there exist many dangers for students wanting to do research on the World Wide Web. The number one danger in the minds of most teachers, librarians, and other information professionals is the validity of the information retrieved via search engines. How factual, unbiased, and current is the information found through the result of any particular search? We have no guarantees, because the Web search environment is ordered around the profit motive, rather than any concerns familiar to most educators and librarians.

As educators and information professionals, we may be concerned with the source of any information found. What are the credentials of the people who presented the information? With whom are they affiliated? What assumptions do the website authors make? Is the website clear about the criteria used to select and order the information? How current is the information presented? How often has the website been updated? Is it possible to contact the authors of the website to clarify any concerns we may have as information consumers? It is appalling how many websites fail to meet some or any objective criteria related to validity of the information they offer.

As librarians, especially school and college librarians, we know that the first Internet source that most students will turn to is the Google search engine. Indeed “googling” has entered the language as a synonym for searching for information on the Internet. As of 2006, Google represented 59.3 percent of all online search queries (TechWeb). How valid is the information retrieved by Google? Well, that depends. If you are searching for fairly non-controversial topics, Google can do a very good job of finding solid, valid information. I searched recently for “Abraham Lincoln” and the first Google results page presented a number of great links. (By the way, most students never look beyond the first results page.) In this case, one of the first listed pages was one by a retired teacher whose passion was anything related to Lincoln. The page listed the credentials of the author, sources consulted, and had been recently updated. The author’s e-mail address was included. The other nine links on the page were of similar high quality.

However, when students search for information on controversial issues, as opposed to straight factual information, things can get dicey. In the not too distant past,I searched for the phrase “gun control” on Google. Of the ten “organic” (as opposed to sponsored) links returned, two hits contained no information about the author(s) or any of their affiliations. Standards or criteria for inclusion were absent. Three had no visible revision dates, and four hits had revision dates two or more years old. One site included in the first Google search page for this important topic dealt with what the Bible has to say about owning and using guns! It had no information about the author or standards of credibility, and was last revised in 1999.

We all know that no one reviews pages indexed by Google. Rather, Google uses a proprietary algorithm to determine the “page rank” of any particular website. We do not know exactly how Google page rank functions (they like to keep us in the dark), but one important factor is the number of incoming links a particular page has, and the page rank of the pages linking to the page. In other words, in all cases, popularity, rather than intrinsic information quality, determines Google page rank.

In addition to the quality of information returned via search engines, another problem is that to gain revenue, most search engines include “sponsored links” somewhere in their search results. As a matter of fact, a June 2005 study done by Penn State reported that “businesses spent an estimated $8 billion to sell their products and services via sponsored links in 2004” (Science Daily,
http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2005/06/050616055236.htm). Google places most of its sponsored links over to the side of the page, and probably does the best job of making it clear to the user which are organic and which are sponsored links. Most of the other search engines tend to mix sponsored and organic links in the main body of the page. This can be very confusing to students who can have difficulty discerning between the two.

Another problem with sponsored links is that they can lead students to some dangerous sites. In a 2006 article, The Safety of Internet Search Engines, authors Ben Edelman Hannah Rosenbaum point out that “8.5 percent overall of sponsored links on Google, Yahoo, Microsoft’s MSN, AOL and Ask.com point to sites rated as “risky” by (McAfee) SiteAdvisor.” They go on to state that these questionable sites tend to, “distribute adware, send a high volume of spam or make unauthorized changes to a user’s computer. (http://www.siteadvisor.com/studies/search_safety_may2006.html)”

As a related issue, PC World recently noted that “In some cases, results at AOL and MSN seem to serve the companies’ corporate needs as much as searchers’ interests…. on AOL and on MSN, the companies ranked their own affiliated e-commerce sites high on the first page. Though you might expect such listings in the sponsored links, we noticed the phenomenon in the real results as well. (The Straight Story on Search Engines PC World http://www.pcworld.com/howto/article/0,aid,97431,pg,5,00.asp)”

To paraphrase, its an information jungle out there, and as librarians our role is to help students extract information from the Internet in the safest and most productive way possible. We need to apply our traditional skills in selection and organization to the Internet. One of the problems is that many librarians feel lacking in both computer and website development skills to make this happen. In this series of blog entries I will try to suggest some ways, from simple to complex, of helping librarians better organize information on the Web for safer and easier retrieval.

Dr. Michael Bell
Former Chair, Texas Association of School Librarians
drmichaelbell@hotmail.com
Retired school and university librarian
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