Farnam Street helps you make better decisions, innovate, and avoid stupidity.

With over 400,000 monthly readers and more than 93,000 subscribers to our popular weekly digest, we've become an online intellectual hub.

Google makes broad-based knowledge more important, not less

Just how tech-savvy are young people? A group of researchers led by business professor Bing Pan tried to find out.

Specifically, Pan wanted to know how skillful young folks are at online search. His team gathered a group of college students and asked them to look up the answers to a handful of questions. Perhaps not surprisingly, the students generally relied on the web pages at the top of Google’s results list. … But Pan pulled a trick: He changed the order of the results for some students. More often than not, those kids went for the bait and also used the (falsely) top-ranked pages.

“Pan grimly concluded that students aren’t assessing information sources on their own merit—they’re putting too much trust in the machine.” As Clive Thompson writes in Wired, “In 1955, we wondered why Johnny can’t read. Today the question is, why can’t Johnny search?”

Thompson concludes that we need to build a base of knowledge:

Mind you, mastering “crap detection 101,” as digital guru Howard Rheingold dubs it, isn’t easy. One prerequisite is that you already know a lot about the world. For instance, Harris found that students had difficulty distinguishing a left-wing parody of the World Trade Organization’s website from the real WTO site. Why? Because you need to understand why someone would want to parody it in the first place—knowledge the average eighth grader does not yet possess.

In other words, Google makes broad-based knowledge more important, not less. A good education is the true key to effective search. But until our kids have that, let’s make sure they don’t always take PageRank at its word.