Everyday Googling: Results of an Observational Study and Applications for Teaching Algorithmic Literacy

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Students, and internet users generally, rely heavily on search engines for academic and personal research. Search engines, driven by algorithms, are so central to students’ research practices as to be nearly invisible. Yet, the role of algorithms in research is not typically addressed within information literacy instruction in composition. To learn the role that search engines play in everyday research processes, I observed participants search personal health topics and tracked their use of search engines. Findings showed that 1) Google was the driver for all participants’ searches, 2) search terms influenced the search process and results, and 3) rankings influenced the sources chosen. Most importantly, these sophisticated searchers were not especially aware of how the search interface and algorithms influenced their process. I recommend that writing instructors incorporate algorithmic literacy instruction into their classrooms. A Search Reflection assignment, in which students record, analyze, and evaluate their search practices, helps students become more critical and intentional as they research.

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Computers and Composition