The Unbearable Literalness of Bing: How to think like a search engine and improve your research

Submitted by Christopher R. Moore on Tue, 09/07/2021 - 07:32

We are used to the internet understanding us. I read somewhere that Siri’s most-frequently asked question is ‘what’s this song?,’ and I’d guess that most of those inquiries are answered swiftly and correctly. Most search engines will even check and correct our spelling too, which is great for those of us who continue to struggle with touch-screen typing. To my sausage-thumbed question ‘Whp wroite Nores of anative soin/?’, Google breathes a tolerant sigh and fetches me James Baldwin’s Wikipedia page.  

This is useful in lots of ways, but it masks a fundamental difference of approach between humans and search engines. The problem is that we just do not speak the same language. Search engines are great at returning specific answers to specific questions – it’s no sweat for Google to match a half-remembered line of poetry to its source, or to provide the year that Liverpool last won the FA Cup1 - but they’re next to useless when it comes to understanding context. So useless in fact that I often hear students complain that they can’t find anything relevant in the online library. This misunderstanding explains why so many free websites end up in student essays as primary sources. 

Now, I mean no disrespect to, but in most circumstances free websites will not enhance your work – this is because they are written for general audiences. As academics, you deserve – indeed you should demand – sources written with academics in mind. It’s considered gauche to cite dictionaries, encyclopaedias or Wikipedia in your assignments partly because these sources are just not written with enough expert detail to be useful to you. For example, Encyclopaedia Britannica defines an electron as ‘a subatomic particle with a negative charge.’ This definition will get you through a GCSE Physics exam, but is functionally useless if you’re writing an article for Nature.  

The truth is this - a search engine is not at all like a librarian. It’s more like an excitable Labrador that brings back everything you throw for it, along with 6 frisbees, 5 broken umbrellas, and a dead squirrel. How do we find sources that are both relevant and detailed enough to be useful? Well, I’d like to recommend two approaches – one practical and one conceptual. 

On a practical level, it’s good to focus your search terms as much as possible – remember, search engines work best when they’re asked specific questions. For example, typing the word ‘business’ into Arden’s EBSCO library yields exactly 40’427’235 results. That’s a lot of dead squirrels. However, limiting the search to texts published since 2020, written in English, and altering the search terms to ‘business hospitality management’ cuts that number down to 442 results – a reduction of considerably more than 99.99%. Even in the early stages of your research, you can shade the odds of finding something useful by applying these techniques. 

My second recommendation involves a change of approach, and I can illustrate this with an example. I went to a state comprehensive school, and as such was taught almost nothing about The British Empire. Feeling more than a little embarrassed about this gap in my knowledge, I recently picked up. Empireland by Sathnam Sanghera. It’s a fascinating read which explores the ways in which The British Empire has shaped our attitudes to everything from food to sport. The book led me to Natives: Race and Class in the Ruins of Empire by Akala, which in turn pointed the way to Capitalism: A Ghost Story by Arundhati Roy. In the course of a week, I gained three new favourite authors and learned more about colonialism than I did in two years of A-Level History. Crucially, I learned things that I didn’t even know that I didn’t know. 

This is the great joy of research, but it’s difficult to achieve if your approach is to head straight to Google and pray that something relevant comes up. I don’t blame anyone for taking this rather scattershot approach, by the way – when faced with any complicated task it’s difficult to know where to start. Personally, I recommend you start with the core texts for your module. Read the chapters relevant to you and look up the texts and theorists they recommend. You can think of this like pulling on a thread or following a trail of clues – one text leads to the next, which leads to the next. Every academic textbook or journal article will contain a reference list, and this can be your most valuable resource. Your research might still lead you down dead ends and to texts you end up discarding, but it will always lead you to texts that exist. That is automatically better than googling your assessment question and hoping to find a useful text that might exist.  

You might think that this approach to research has no logical endpoint, and you would be right. There are no perfect books, no holy grail of academia to which all research eventually leads. There is always more reading to do, and that’s a good thing - it’s up to your academic judgement to decide what makes the final cut and what gets left out. It is true that humans and search engines don’t speak the same language, but this can be overcome. Humans and dogs don’t speak the same language either, but with patience and the right approach, you too can avoid being presented with a pile of dead squirrels when what you really wanted was a tennis ball. 

Reading and Research