Chapter 3: Searching

3.2 Google

Many of you use Google every day. You may trust that it will quickly and easily find exactly what you want. While Google is certainly the largest and most heavily used search engine, there are plenty of others available. Examples of other search engines include Bing, DuckDuckGo, and Yahoo. Each search engine uses different ranking systems, which affect the number and order of your search results. This discrepancy can make it difficult to replicate search results or to share a search with a friend. Even if you use the same search engine and keywords, the search history on the computer you use also affects the list of results you retrieve. Try experimenting with different search engines to find the one you prefer. We’re going to focus on Google as an example of how most search engines work.

How Google works

Google uses proprietary algorithms and a unique ranking system to determine where a website will be placed in your search results. Google’s algorithm tries to interpret your search terms based on several predetermined criteria and returns results that it decides are relevant. For everyday, quick searches, this can be helpful. However, the top results may not be the best sites for your intended purpose. Google does not always correctly interpret your search terms or intent, and excludes materials not available on the open web.

Sponsored links

Sponsored links are advertisements that often appear at the top of your search results. This means that someone has paid to have their website appear at the top of a specific web search. Depending on the search engine you’re using, it may not always be easy to identify these ads from your real search results. Some are clearly labeled, others are not. Be sure you know the difference between these paid advertisements and more authoritative content. Advertisements are a chief source of revenue for Google and other web search engines, and they are placed prominently in your search results to generate income from advertisers.

Screenshot of a Tweet from the Jane Goodall Institute that has an inspirational quote beneath a photo of Jane Goodall walking through the woods, surrounded by lush vegetation. The quote says "if we kill off the wild, then we are killing a part of our souls."
Figure 2.2 A Tweet from the Jane Goodall Institute about the relationship between humanity and nature.

Every search has a different context. Sometimes you just need basic facts and news and, in that case, Google would be a good option. However, if you need scholarly information, Google may not be your best choice. If you rely on typical web search engines for all your information needs, you will miss some of the scholarly information on your topic some scholarly sources will be behind a paywall.

Let’s say you need to write a paper about Jane Goodall, a world-renowned researcher and activist who has studied chimpanzees since the 1950s and published her research in more than 100 scholarly articles. When you Google Jane Goodall, you’ll find websites related to her organizations, a Wikipedia entry, her Twitter feed, photos and videos, links to buy her books, and news articles. All of this may be good information, but most of it is not peer-reviewed scholarly material. If your professor requires you to use only peer-reviewed sources in your work, it will be necessary to go beyond Google to find what you need.

Google Scholar

Google Scholar is similar to Google except that it typically excludes non-scholarly web content because its primary purpose is to find scholarly materials. These include journal articles, books, patents, legal documents, reports, and more. However, there’s no easy way to separate journal articles from other resources covered by Google Scholar, including some digitized books and scholarly websites. You may also find things you wouldn’t expect like course syllabi and PowerPoint slides.

One of the most important things to understand about Google Scholar is where its content comes from because that determines if and how you can access it. Much of the material you find there comes directly from the open web. For example, it’s common to see pdf files from researchers’ websites, open access articles, and similar links in your Google Scholar search results. These types of materials are available to anyone, anywhere. You shouldn’t have to log in to any website or database to access these materials.

Mixed in with these open web materials, you’ll also find paywalled materials, including subscription journal articles and e-books. In most cases you can still access these, though it may take a few steps. Google Scholar has a feature that provides members of the NKU community with links to materials covered by NKU subscriptions. At home, make sure to connect to Google Scholar via the library website for more access.


Google Scholar

Simple to search and mobile-friendly X X
Difficult to focus/refine search results X X
Available to anyone with an Internet connection X X
Search engine algorithms may use prior searches to influence results X
Easy access to media content (video, images) X
Access to scholarly material X
NKU connection will provide additional access X


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LIN 175: Information Literacy Copyright © 2022 by Steely Library Education & Outreach Services, Northern Kentucky University is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.