I was reading this article in Wired when I came upon the claim that “Google: Accounts for almost four out of five internet searches (which includes sites that license Google’s search technology), and 75 percent of all referrals to websites.” No references are offered for these figures. The rest of the piece is filled with other supposed facts without one link to or mention of a source.
Having followed the search engine market for a while the numbers in the quote above sound suspicious to me. I have never seen figures suggesting that Google (with or without affiliates) accounts for 80 percent of all searches. I contacted the author for his sources. To his credit, he got back to me very promptly. However, he did not point me to a source that can verify the information. (I do not quote from personal communication in public unless I indicated to the author that I would – which I did not – so I will not give you his exact words, but there is no source with the above figure that I can pass on to you or a collection of sources whose aggregated information leads to the above number.)
Newspaper and magazine articles do not require citations so unless the source is mentioned in the text as part of the article (e.g. “a study by the Pew Internet and American Life Project found…”) then the reader has no way of verifying the information (unless the reader decides to contact the author and the author responds). In academic writing, it is well understood that you have to cite your sources whether you are referencing ideas or specific facts. I realize that this may be tedious to do on the limited pages of newspapers and magazines. However, it seems that in online publications there should be less of a constraint to cite sources. If the reporter did his or her job and looked up relevant references for an article then why not link to them? Sure, if these are proprietary sources then that may be difficult. But I am sure that is not always the case. Yet we rarely see references to original sources in traditional newspaper and magazine pieces.
Now that the above article has appeared in Wired with the mentioned numbers stated as supposed fact, future writers (of blogs, newspaper articles, academic papers or what have you) can simply cite the Wired piece as the source of these figures and be done with it. And then we will have an unverified (and highly unlikely) figure taking on a life of its own.
PS. It is a whole other issue to figure out what it really means that a search engine accounts for x% of all searches. That may still just mean y% of all users (where y is a much smaller number than x). You can read more about this here. It would take a whole other post to get into why this may also be relevant here. I’ll leave that for another time.