Trust Online: Young Adults’ Evaluation of Web Content

Posting to NGC4LIB

I would suggest members of this list read a very interesting article: Trust Online: Young Adults’ Evaluation of Web Content (International Journal of Communication 4, 2010) by researchers from Northwestern. From the abstract:

“We find that the process by which users arrive at a site is an important component of how they judge the final destination. In particular, search context, branding and routines, and a reliance on those in one’s networks play important roles in online information-seeking and evaluation. We also discuss that users differ considerably in their skills when it comes to judging online content credibility”.

I think this report fills a hole in the literature (at least so much as I have found) that has people evaluate “the search result” instead of individual websites. Readers of this list probably understand that the results you are presented, i.e. the quest to become Google result #1, is extemely complex in the process of finding decent information. The report’s results are not surprising: people do not understand the concept of “relevance” or how search engines work. While there is some awareness (apparently) that they should go to the “About Us” page, and similar parts of a site, it seems that people rarely do so. They discuss how people tend to go to the same sites over and over again.

But what interested me most was how people evaluated the search results, and what they noted:

“In some cases, the respondent regarded the search engine as the relevant entity for which to evaluate trustworthiness, rather than the Web site that contained the information. The following exchange between the researcher and a female social science major illustrates this point well:

Researcher: What is this Web site?
Respondent: Oh, I don’t know. The first thing that came up”

I have seen this a lot myself, but I don’t know if this indicates a level of “trust” or rather just the normal human failing of laziness. I have several times cited an excellent report by Marcia Bates, and I will again: “Improving User Access to Library Catalog and Portal Information” where she writes:

“Principle of least effort.

Probably the single most frequently discovered finding on information seeking behavior is that people use the principle of least effort in their information seeking. This may seem reasonable and obvious, but the full significance of this finding must be understood. People do not just use information that is easy to find; they even use information they know to be of poor quality and less reliable–so long as it requires little effort to find–rather than using information they know to be of high quality and reliable, though harder to find. Research on this behavior dates at least as far back as the 1960s, when a major study demonstrated that physicians tended to rely on drug company salesmen for drug information, rather than consulting the research literature. (Coleman, Katz, & Menzel, 1967). Poole reviewed dozens of these studies in 1985 (Poole, 1985); Mann has a more recent review (Mann, 1992).”

Of course, I am guilty of this behavior myself. It seems we must accept that people will “exert the least effort” to get information, because what they get ready to hand will be “good enough”. Back when people had no choice except to use well-selected libraries, using the card catalog to find peer-reviewed books was the “easiest” thing to do back then. People felt they could more or less “trust” what they read, but eliminating all of this selection and controls for materials on the web doesn’t mean that the work shouldn’t still be done–it just offsets it onto the shoulders of the users. So, in the Information Literacy classes, we exhort our patrons to read the “About Us” pages, search out information about the author(s), check their credentials and so on, but to believe people will do this is extremely naive. I figure the only real result of librarians telling people to do all this work that we *know* they won’t do, is to just lay (yet another) guilt trip on them. After all, we didn’t expect them to do this kind of work with printed books and magazines–why should we believe they will do anything else today?

But to be fair to the users, Google does not allow for much filtering for these purposes, although recently they have allowed for different sorts of the records, e.g. based on time, “Related searches” and that inscrutable “Wonder Wheel” which does something I don’t understand at all! Still, if there were a filter for something like “reliable information,” I am sure lots of people would click it. According to the Northwestern report, it seems that many users believe that is what they are getting when they click on result #1 in Google or Yahoo: the most “reliable”. Utlimately, I think this forms part of the popularity of some of these Web2.0 tools, people get recommendations from others they feel they can “trust”.

Previously, people *believed* they were getting reliable information when they pulled a book off a shelf in a library, but in reality, that was not guaranteed at all. Something on the shelf might be reviewed, or peer-reviewed, or edited, or not, and the amount of reviewing and/or editing may be better or worse. Also, the information could be completely obsolete.

I still believe however, that libraries can provide something unique that no other entity can today (although somebody probably will do this eventually and may even make tons of money off of it), and that is to provide some level of selection based on traditional librarian values. The article from Northwestern, I think, supports such a view because it shows that people are concerned about “quality content”, it’s just too difficult and complicated to expect each person to torment themselves by going through the process of quality control over and over and over again.

What that system of “reliability” would be that we could supply, I do not know.