Learning to use a search engine and understanding how it works is an essential skill for any fact checker — and just about everyone. So, when looking for reliable information online, you need to be vigilant.
Search engines are often funded by online advertising, with advertisers paying for their content to appear next to the top search results. Google recently rolled out – and later rolled back – several design changes that impacted readers’ ability to discern between ads and organic search results.
For example, take a common research you could do: free tax return.
When looking for a “Free US Income Tax Return”, consumers are faced with many paid advertisements and organic results for commercial offers before seeing the “Free File” option of the Internal Revenue Service (IRS), a free option provided by the federal government.
ProPublica reporter Justin Elliot demonstrated on Twitter that the IRS option was “at # 8 after a bunch of misleading ads” in his Google search results for “free tax filing.”
In the screenshot above, the top four results are advertisements, paid by companies to show their information in your search results, and the rest are considered organic results.
The free government file option appears as the eighth overall result and the fourth organic result; the rest of the results push commercial offers. If you do a search on your phone, you might have to scroll a bit before accessing the government option, and this “free” commercial option might not be as “free” as you expect.
We learned from Elliot’s ProPublica report in 2019 that commercial services like TurboTax have hidden their own “free file” offers to appear in Google search results, sending consumers down the path to their paid products. The company behind these services ended the practice after it was discovered, but it brought to light another important understanding of search engines: the result you really need may not show up in the results at all. of research.
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