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How Do You Know Which Search Engines Are Best for Research?

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Research is something we students and scholars do almost daily. We do it for discussion boards, for papers, and for simply gaining better and deeper knowledge of something that interests us.

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In conducting our research, we no longer need to thumb through the card catalogues at our local library. Nor are we are confined to the library’s limited holdings in the stacks, or to slightly larger but slower, more cumbersome interlibrary loans. No longer do we have to travel to a local bookstore in hopes of finding the text we need. Today, a vast amount of the world’s knowledge is available on the internet, just fingertips away from our inquisitive minds.

Yet we are perhaps still confined not by stacks but by our choice of search engines. While there are perhaps hundreds of search engines, most people resort to a few of the most popular such as Google, Yahoo, Bing, Dogpile and DuckDuckGo.

With So Many Search Results, How Can We Determine Which Ones Are Useful?

By the nature of their proprietary software, search engines provide us with a multitude of results. A search on these five popular search engines for information on “climate change” returned 178 million hits using Bing and 203 million using Google. Dogpile, DuckDuckGo and Yahoo wisely do not list the number of search returns.

With so many search returns, how can we determine which ones are most useful to us? This situation is when we need to narrow the search.

Conducting a Narrow Search Test with Search Engines

But does narrowing the search help that much? And is the search accurate? While knowing the exact number of internet sites in existence that cover a topic is normally not possible, we can still test the capabilities of search engines to provide us with what we want to see through a controlled search.

In this test, we will use a very specific search command and will search only for articles on Ebola that I’ve written, since I know the number that are on the internet. In typing my name and Ebola, I am telling the search engines to return only the results that contain those three words.

How did we do? Bing returned 12,300 results, Yahoo had 11,900, Dogpile had 14 and DuckDuckGo had 14. Google initially had 51 listed, but after I selected “next page,” it revised the number to 18. Based on a quick scan of the returns, it was obvious that none of the search engines correctly limited the search to just my name and Ebola. Some of the returns were other articles I wrote at about the same general time.

In an attempt to determine why there was a vast number of inaccurate returns for both Bing and Yahoo, I searched for just “ebola,” and both Bing and Yahoo returned over 61 million results. A search of just my name resulted in Bing and Yahoo both returning over 9,000 results. 

However, for both Bing and Yahoo, most of the results were not related to my postings, either on Ebola or any other topic. Unfortunately, I cannot explain why this happened since the use of quotations marks around key search terms to limit search results is a well-known method of weeding out unnecessary search engine results.

A more refined search using “Dr. Brian Blodgett” and “ebola,” did not alter Bing’s results, but changing it to +Dr. +Brian +Blodgett +ebola reduced the number to 4,350 results. Using “Dr. Brian Blodgett” and “ebola” on Google narrowed the search to just four results. Yahoo’s results were reduced to 13, while Dogpile and DuckDuckGo remained the same.

In looking at the overall results for these five search engines, it is easy to assume that perhaps using Bing or Yahoo would return the same results, as well as for Dogpile and DuckDuckGo. However, since all five of these search engines have their own proprietary algorithms, this is not the case. I am stumped as to why the results are so different. 

There was no winner. Going through Bing’s search results would take days or perhaps weeks. All of the other search engines included false results, which were webpages on other topics I authored but did not include the word “Ebola.”

In fact, of the three articles I wrote on Ebola in 2019, four of the search engines correctly returned these articles, but they were buried among their other returns. Google reported only one of the three articles.

It seems that conducting a search is not as easy as it might seem. And when we use search engines, we can get vastly different results, with none of them being 100% accurate. This is also true based on my search history.

Some Search Engines Can Tailor Search Engine Page Results Based on a User’s Search History

Some search engines also track what people search for when they use the same computer. Then the search engine refines the results so that, in the eye of the designers, they return those results that are most likely to fit what the searcher is looking for. While this adaptation would not matter in a very narrow or specific search, it could have a pronounced effect if the search were much broader, perhaps using our initial search for “climate change.”

With so many possible results, many researchers will quickly grow tired after the first few pages of results and stop looking. They will settle for the top 30 or so sites, which they will quickly pare down even further.

Yet are these the best sites? The answer that should seem obvious is no, that the results depend on the search engine. However, with there being no one perfect search engine, what is the answer?

The answer is not to search for the best search engine and use the results. Perhaps it’s better to first find the top search engines, which may include some you have not heard of, such as StartPage, Swisscows or Yippy.

Use Several Search Engines, Rather than Just One

By utilizing several search engines instead of just one, you can browse through their results, examine each one briefly and determine the individual results that are the best among the various engines. Lastly, study them in greater depth. In that way, you will be taking back some control over your searches and be positioned to become a better researcher.

Dr. Brian Blodgett is an alumnus of American Military University who graduated in 2000 with a master of arts in military studies and a concentration in land warfare. He retired from the U.S. Army in 2006 as a Chief Warrant Officer after serving over 20 years, first as an infantryman and then as an intelligence analyst. He is a 2003 graduate of the Joint Military Intelligence College where he earned a master of science in strategic intelligence with a concentration in South Asia. He graduated from Northcentral University in 2008, earning a doctorate in philosophy in business administration with a specialization in homeland security. Dr. Blodgett has been a part-time faculty member, a full-time faculty member and a program director. He is currently a full-time faculty member in the School of Security and Global Studies and teaches homeland security and security management courses.

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