4. Searching the internet

On the internet it can be difficult to know where to look to find authoritative websites and articles.

Search engines

A search engine, like Google or Bing, is a website that indexes the contents of the web so you can search for information that matches your keywords.

How do search engines work?


Search engines use internet robots (bots), sometimes known as ‘web crawlers’ or ‘spiders’, to index websites. The indexed and searchable web represents a minority of the overall content on the web.

Video icon The Internet: How Search Works (5m12s) explains how “spiders” scan the Internet to determine which search results show up first.

Site ranking

Complex algorithms are used by search engines to rank websites and determine what results to return to you. Different search engines use different algorithms, but some common methods used to rank websites include:

  • how often a page is linked to from other sources.
  • how often the content is updated.
  • the trustworthiness of the domain.

Companies often use techniques such as search engine optimization or SEO, to boost their place in search engine rankings by using these algorithms to their advantage. They can also pay to be listed at the top of a search as an advertisement. This is why oftentimes, the first few results you see first may not be the most relevant to your search.

Book icon Read about how Google’s search algorithms analyse your search terms and the context to return webpage results that it determines are most relevant for you.

Issues around search algorithms

Search algorithms can:

In response to claims of bias in 2018, Google stated that “While we take great care to present the most authoritative information, there are many cases where users can and will find information that’s not authoritative”. So, it is important to evaluate the information you find (visit the next section of this module).

Filter bubbles

Ever noticed how search engines will suggest search terms to you as you are typing in the search bar? The fact that you may see different suggestions than someone else typing the same letters is an example of a “filter bubble”. Eli Pariser coined the phrase “filter bubble” in 2011 to illustrate how the internet can give you a biased perspective of the world based on search engine algorithms, your past internet searches and what hyperlinks you have clicked on.

Screenshot: Google search box with a filter bubble.

Search engines’ auto-suggestions are based on real searches that people have done, and results retrieved can vary from country to country. Someone searching for “Passport applications” will be directed to a different website depending on whether they are searching from the UK or Australia, and on their previous search history.

Watch the video in which Eli explains what a ‘filter bubble’ is, how search engines tailor their search results based on your search history, and how they can retrieve information that may not challenge or expand your perspective on the world.

Video player icon Beware online “filter bubbles” (TED Talk – TED.com, 8m58s)

Privacy and search engines

The main way search engines make money is by selling information about your search habits to 3rd party advertisers.


While search engines such as Google, Bing and Yahoo are good search engines to use when searching for information, they use cookies to track which websites you have visited.

You may have had a pop up when you have visited an internet page which tells you that cookies are being used to improve services.

Cookies are a small piece of data inserted by a web page into your browser. Cookies allow websites to remember you when you next visit the website. Learn more about privacy in the Digital security module.

Search engines that do not use cookies

Answer engines

Wolfram Alpha is an engine that allows you to ask questions in the search box. These are often science-based queries but can also be queries related to the arts and general knowledge.

Question mark icon Try searching for one of the following questions in Wolfram Alpha.

  • How many calories are contained in 10 peanut M&Ms?
  • Who won the best actor Academy Award (Oscar) in 1976?
  • Find words ending in “dog”.
  • Orbital path of Hubble space telescope

The database will then compute the answers and provide visualisations, where necessary, to answer your query.

Open access logo Open access materials

The ability to find relevant and credible information is a skill valued by employers. Do you know how to find scholarly research when you no longer have access to Library resources?

Many of the databases that the Library subscribes to only allow access to current UQ staff and students. Alumni membership gives access to a limited number of Library databases. One solution is to use open access resources.

Open access (OA) refers to unrestricted online access to academic research. Open access publications available online include:

  • articles.
  • books and book chapters.
  • conference papers.
  • theses.
  • working papers.
  • data and images.

If you are looking for scholarly journal articles after you graduate, or even whilst you are studying or working at UQ, there are a number of ways you can access them free of charge.

Open educational resources (OER)

Find open educational resources (OER) – eBooks and eTextbooks, open journals, images, audio, video, and software.

Institutional repositories

An institutional repository is where university researchers deposit their academic work. UQ eSpace is UQ’s institutional repository, but you can find more open access repositories via OpenDoar.

Open access publishing

Not all articles are accessible as soon as they are uploaded by the authors. Some journal publishers may enforce an embargo, or a ban, on the articles being viewed by the public for 6 – 12 months or longer. Open Access explains more about open access publishing.

Open access journals and books


Icon for the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License

Information Essentials Copyright © 2023 by The University of Queensland is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

Share This Book