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Evaluating Web Resources

This is a quick guide on how to evaluate resources found on the web. Tips on how to cite information in web resources and how to find information on the web are also provided.

Google Searching for Research

A little about Google search:

Google is so good at finding things we need (like that recipe for lemon bars or the weekend weather forecast), it's easy to forget that the search is not an all-knowing being handing out truth, but rather a program that runs a search algorithm created by imperfect humans. So when we use Google to search for information beyond the basics, we can get better (more relevant, more trustworthy) information by being aware of possible bias in search results, and by using a few specific search techniques. 

Bias in Google search results:

Many researchers have demonstrated biases in Google's search results. Some are intentional, for example:

  • Google favors results that are geographically nearby (like the nearest coffee shop)
  • Google favors results that are similar to pages you've already viewed in your search history
  • Google favors pages that are popular, meaning lots of other users have viewed the pages in their search history

Other demonstrated biases are not intentional, but reflect the many difference biases that are part of the larger mainstream American culture. These include:

  • Racial bias
  • Gender bias
  • Political bias
  • Very likely many others that have yet to be identified

To find out more about these biases and ways to address them, see the excellent guide, "Bias in Search Engines and Algorithms" by librarian Dominique Dozier of Santa Clara University Library. The main ways we can try to address bias as searchers are:

Use these basic principles of Google searching to get better results, more quickly:

Principle 1: Google's search is built to find the most popular websites containing the words in your search. These are often not the sites that contain the most accurate or academic information. Here are some ways to offset this tendency:
  • Be very specific about what type of information you want. Add words like: define, statistics, report, research, data, opinion, history, timeline, review, bibliography or peer review to your keywords.
  • Try doing a SITE SEARCH. You tell Google exactly what type of site domain you want results to be from. No single domain type is all reliable or all unreliable, however a site search can help you find a slice of the web that you might not normally see, simply because it's not heavily used.
    • Example: mumps statistics site:gov (This search finds the words "mumps" and "statistics" on the same page, and only shows results from websites with .gov at the end.)
    • Here are the major site domains online: .gov = U.S. government | .com = commercial/business | .edu = educational institution | .org = non-profit organization 
Principle 2: Google's search is built to find all the words you type into your search on the same webpage. This makes sense, however sometimes being extra specific about how you want Google to search makes your results much more relevant, without scrolling through dozens to get to what you want. Here are some ways to get precise about what you want Google to find:
  • Use QUOTATION MARKS when your keyword is actually a phrase of 2 or more words.
    • Example: "climate change" hurricanes report (This searches the words "climate change" as a phrase, plus "hurricanes" and "report", so in this case we are looking for an official report on any relationship between climate change and hurricanes.)
    • Example: origin quote "be the change you wish to see" (In this search we want to know the origin of the often-repeated phrase "be the change you wish to see". The quotation marks are very helpful because this quote includes many common words that could be ignored by Google's search algorithm.)
  • Use the EXCLUSION or MINUS sign to eliminate specific words from your results. This is helpful when you run your search and find many results are not relevant. Adding an exclusion word tells Google to eliminate any results with that word.
    • Example: jets -football (This search is looking for information on jet airplanes, and not Jets the football team.)
Principle 3: Google makes many adjustments to the search results it shows you first, based on its prediction of what you're likely to click on. Similar to Principle 1 and favoring popular sites, this isn't often helpful when looking for accurate information for academic work. Here are a few of the adjustments Google does automatically, and how you can take control of what you want to see.
  • PROBLEM: Google favors pages that are similar to sites you have clicked on in the past. The problem is that we might miss getting a wide variety of views or source types that we need when doing research. How to combat this? Use Google's VERBATIM search: 
    • After running your keyword search, click on "Tools", usually found underneath and to the right of the search box.
    • Then click the "All results" dropdown menu and select "Verbatim". This tells Google you want the search results based only on your keywords, without the skew of favoring sites similar to those you usually view. 
    • Note: this same VERBATIM search also works when Google wants to autocorrect a unique spelling or term that it thinks you've misspelled. 
  • PROBLEM: Google shows you websites most related to your search terms, but sometimes you need very recent information. What can you do? Use Google's Tools again:
    • After running your keyword search, click on "Tools", usually found underneath and to the right of the search box.
    • Then click "Any time" and select your preferred time period. The presets are: past hour, past 24 hours, past week, past month, and past year. You can also narrow to a period of time in the past with the "custom range" option.
Try out these search tips the next time you're searching for good sources online!

More on Advanced Google Searching

More Google search operators:

In addition to quotation marks for phrase searching, and the minus sign for excluding keywords, here are a few more you might find helpful:

  1. ASTERISK (*) or wild card: Use as a placeholder for an unknown word in a phrase search. Example: "*has more caffeine" or dirty harry quote "do * feel lucky" 
  2. NEAR (n) or proximity search: Finds search terms within the specified distance of the words. Example: Iowa (5) hospitals (this search finds pages where "Iowa" and "hospitals" appear within 5 words of each other.
  3. FILETYPE search: Finds your keywords in the specified file type. Use the file extension as the document type, not the name of the software. Examples: bats iowa filetype:pdf or template mla filetype:doc
  4. LINK search: Finds pages that provide a link to the specified URL. Example: will return results of websites that link to This could be useful in understanding how well known a site is, and what affiliations the organization might have.
  5. RELATED URL search: Finds pages with content similar to the specified URL. Example: Google uses its algorithm to return a list of webpages it considers similar to the content on the given URL.

Google's "How Search Works" tutorial

Google has created a quick and fun tutorial where you learn more about how their search works, and how you can customize your search to various needs. 

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