I’ll admit that I live a sheltered life. In running a one-person business offering research services for a hefty fee, my clients already know the value of research when they call me. And, while I do have one client who asks me for “non-Google research,” when that’s often my starting point, I usually do not have to justify the accuracy of my sources.
The other day, however, I had my wake-up call. I was meeting with my client, the manufacturer of a specialized monitoring device, and an executive from the economic development agency funding my research. I presented my findings—that the industry the client was interested in was forecast to see no growth in the next 5 years—and I got a reaction I haven’t had in quite a while. The ED executive argued with me, saying that she was just positive the industry was growing, because President Joe Biden had just signed into law two big spending bills. She believed that government funding for infrastructure projects would inevitably flow to her region and that tapping into that government funding was a simple process. I tried describing the range of authoritative sources that all predicted no direct funding to the industry from these bills, and her response was that she simply didn’t believe it and that my client should ignore my findings. (And yes, I did wonder why she wanted to fund research that she would choose to ignore.)
This pointed out to me how the filter bubble, which we have been talking about for more than a decade, is even more entrenched than ever. When it is as easy to find news from fringe sources as from reputable publishers, information consumers may conclude that all sources are equally reliable and they can select those sources that conform to their existing beliefs. Google, bless its heart, attempts to combat the most egregious misinformation it serves up in search results. Google News includes a Fact Check section highlighting a half-dozen of the most current claims, and clearly questionable search results are flagged as false.
What I find worrisome, though, is Google’s interest in zero-click results, such as the Google Answer Box and “featured snippets,” which train users to expect to find the answers on the search results screen, without the need to click-through to the original source. Factual searches—What are COVID symptoms? What’s the attention span of a human? When will the sun explode?—are well-suited for zero-click results, assuming you trust Google’s ability to identify reliable sources. However, this habit of relying on the information that appears at the top of a search results page can be dangerous when search results do not offer an authoritative Answer Box but simply the auto-generated summaries of each website. A purveyor of misinformation can take advantage of this algorithmic feature to highlight inaccurate or inflammatory text, making it easy for people to confirm their beliefs by “doing their own research” and skimming Google search results for the answer they want.
To address this self-reinforcing cycle of “I believe it; I found it on the web; that confirms it,” we info pros, and online search professionals in particular, need to rethink how we describe and present the results of our research, as well as how to make it appear as valuable as it is. We have to retrain users to notice sources, not just headlines or snippets. Back in the day when info pros were first addressing the trope “Information wants to be free so why should we pay for it?” I made a point of listing the resources I used for any project. I would highlight the fee-based information services as well as any specialized tools and resources. I stopped doing this a decade ago, on the assumption that of course my clients knew that I would be using professional-grade information sources and that I used strategies and techniques to find the most authoritative information.
After my experience with the executive who just knew that her hunch was more accurate than a passel of market analysts, I have come back around to the practice of highlighting the sources of my information. While I no longer list the individual resources used, I am adding verbiage to the effect that this information was derived from articles in trade and professional publications, government agencies, industry associations, and other sources generally considered reliable. Left unsaid are my less professional thoughts—if you don’t like the answers I gave, just Google it; I’m sure you’ll find something to your liking there.
This is my last appearance on the back page of Online Searcher. I look forward to sharing my thoughts on the online world inside the covers of Computers in Libraries starting in 2023.