Sources, please, it just requires a tag (and careful reporting)

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 (I do not quote from personal communication in public unless I indicated to the author that I would – which I did not – so I will not give you his exact words, but there is no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.

3 Responses to “Sources, please, it just requires a tag (and careful reporting)”

  1. Michael Zimmer Says:

    I think the author might be using old information. The Wikipedia page for Google links to a May, 2003 report that lists Google’s combined search engine share at 80% (when you include Yahoo! and AOL, who were using Google’s technology at the time).

  2. Chris Says:

    Funny that you just wrote this. I just got out of my magazine article writing class, and in that spirit, I’ll attempt to offer some justification on behalf of magazine folk. Let me play devil’s advocate here.

    One common activity for those writing and selling articles is to repurpose and repackage the same article for different publications. In some respects, the collection of sources and research is proprietary information, and it possesses a value itself independent of a single article. If I’m writing a magazine article and it gets published, as a writer, I want to be able to take my content and try and sell different versions to others. If a complete bibliography is posted with my article, I’m giving up a competitive advantage that I have created for myself by filtering sources to arrive at a useful set. Another writer may simply take my sources and use those to sell a similar article to a publication that I may have been targeting.

    Of course, this is the only reason I know for keeping all sources confidential. (The writer in this case may simply be lazy. Who knows?) Given the different nature of the magazine article market than that of the academic “market”, different values and considerations prevail. In the magazine world, the reader is not expected to fact-check the writer (and editors), so lists of citations have less value than in the academic world. In the academic realm, a little more responsibility is placed on the reader.

    I share in your concern of an unverified fact taking a life of its own. I’m honestly surprised that it might be acceptable for an academic paper could cite a magazine article as a source. Those writing magazine articles and those writing journal articles are motivated by very different factors, and it’s useful to have some sort of virtual firewall between the two.

  3. Anita Hendersen Says:

    I don’t know why you dislike me, Eszter. Anyway, I never meant to imply that the bloggers at CT were snobs, so much as the commenters. You has a post last year about how people search the Internet – you had done some research. The commenters were all uppity about how people don’t know what they are doing on the internet and how they don’t use Google, etc. As far as market share, I don’t know. I just rely on what I read on the internet, which as you point out seems unfounded. I do remember a couple years ago reading that Google has over 70% share of searches (not 70% of people who search because heavy searchers tended to use Google rather than other engines), and that other search engines were stronger outside the US. But I never pretended, even to myself, that I had any primary knowledge in this field. Like other marketing people, I just take what information I can get and go from there. That’s why we need academics like you to get involved – so we can get clear about what’s really going on in this field.