(This is part of my Life after Google project which, as you’ll recall, allows me to use Google for the purposes of illustrating a point. So, don’t start ragging on me because I used Google.)
If you’ve taught any library instruction sessions over the past few years, you’ve probably had that helpful student who points out that “Google has everything!” I had That Guy this past Friday and he wouldn’t back down: library instruction is unnecessary because he can get everything he needs using Google and Google Scholar. “I don’t really need to use the library ’cause it’s all in Google anyway,” he said. Maybe you’ve had the same student in a recent class? Maybe you’ve had a faculty member or administrative-type express the same sentiment? Maybe you’ve given in to your anger and lashed out in a cardigan-bedecked fury, leaving behind a room of broken bodies covered in cat dander? Maybe not, but whatever the case, it sure is annoying, isn’t it?
So, how do we counter the popular belief that everything is in Google? Sure, we can talk about credibility, about the cost of subscriptions, about search engine optimization, about the difference between the Surface Web and the Deep Web…I’m sure you have approximately ninety bajillion responses to the Bill Mahers of the world. But you know what sticks? Numbers. If you really want to drive the point home that Google is only a moderately helpful research tool, why not quickly show your students that, far from being “everything”, a Google search returns fewer articles than a fairly standard library database? It goes like this…
When Friday’s student insisted that Google has “everything”, I decided to call him on his bluff. I looked him straight in the eye and coolly said, “Boy, I’m ’bout *this close* to smacking the taste out your mouth.” And, out loud, I said, “Want to put that to a test? What’s your topic?” “Alcoholism,” he replied. Now, this was the part of class before we talk about narrowing topics, so I indulged him in his overly broad topic. I pointed down the middle of the room and asked everyone on the left side of the room to go to Google and look up “alcoholism”. The students on the right were to go to the rather ordinary Academic OneFile database and do the same, limiting just to full-text articles. Here’s a screen capture from Google:
Notice, there are supposedly 5.07 million articles available. Wow. What does Academic OneFile have in full-text?
Academic OneFile has 5,272 academic journal articles, 3,531 magazine articles, 11,875 news articles, and 669 other sources at 8:13 p.m. on November 7, 2011. That’s a rather paltry grand total of just over 21,000 full-text articles. Crap. The Google kids are right: Google has everything! Needless to say, the students on the left felt vindicated…until I asked them to scroll to the bottom of the page and look at the next page of results. And then the next page. And the next page. On the smartboards in the front of the room I advanced through Google’s results ten at a time until we all got to this:
868 web pages. That’s it. Adding the omitted results brings it to an even 1,000. Now, about that 5.07 million? Maybe Google can reduce their figure by, oh, I don’t know, about 99.9998%. Google may index more than five million websites related to alcoholism, but the search results are capped.
It’s as simple as that. If your students argue that Google has everything, show them that a basic library database offers 20 times as many articles in full-text. Even a Subject Search for ‘Alcoholism’ yields more than 13,000 articles. Heck, the narrow subject of ‘Alcoholism, Genetic Aspects’ has almost 657 articles, compared to Google’s 703 articles for ‘Alcoholism and Genetics’. I’m telling you, letting the students see these numbers for themselves can quickly sway them back towards the library. Add in the cherry that they won’t have to worry about whether the library source is acceptable as one of their minimum of 15 sources, and you’ve got a compelling argument that will sway even the most die-hard Google fan.
That is, of course, assuming the Google fan is relatively inexperienced in academic research. With an experienced understanding of how to manipulate Google results, you can get some amazing things. Try playing A Google A Day if you don’t believe me. An experienced researcher knows how to tweak filters, pick the right keywords, and get freaky with the Boolean operators. The trick I’m suggesting isn’t for them; they already know that Google has a lot, but it doesn’t have everything. The trick I’m suggesting is for the novice researcher. It’s for library instruction classes, not one-on-ones with faculty and graduate students. It’s for students with broad, Freshman-level topics. It’s just a rhetorical trick designed to call into question the commonly held belief that you can find more in Google than in the library. And, as a rhetorical device, it introduces valuable questions. Why does Google cap their results? How useful is it to have millions of results? How does Google decide which 1,000 results to display? Sure, Google may have 50 billion pages indexed, and you may find websites on just about everything, but sometimes it’s nice to be able to show that, from a practical standpoint, the library has more.