Using the keywords "Martin Luther King," the first result on Google and AOL--whose search is powered by Google--and the second result on Microsoft Windows Live search is a Web site created by a white supremacists group that purports to provide "a true historical examination" of the civil rights leader.
Granted, there are sponsored links above the result on all three sites and a "snapshot" of links to related content on AOL above the link on that Web site. But given that many people rely on the information they get in the top few results, someone could come away with a skewed perception of the man.
That's where librarians come in. While the Web is good for offering quick results from a broad range of sources, which may or may not be trustworthy, librarians can help people get access to more authoritative information and go deeper with their research.
"There are limitations with the search engines," said Marilyn Parr, public service and collections access officer at the Library of Congress. "You can type in 'Thomas Jefferson' in any search engine and you will get thousands of hits. How do you then sort through those to find the ones that are verifiable information, authentic and not someone's personal opinion?"
Most people don't bother to look at results past the first page or spend much time evaluating the source of the material, experts say.
"There's a problem with information illiteracy among people. People find information online and don't question whether it's valid or not," said Chris Sherman, executive editor of industry blog site SearchEngineWatch.com. "I think that's where librarians are extremely important. They are trained to evaluate the quality of the information."
AOL spokesman Andrew Weinstein said the company has contacted Google about the Martin Luther King search results.
"We get all of our organic search results from Google, as you know, so we don't set the algorithms by which they are ranked," Weinstein wrote in an e-mail. "Although we can't micro-manage billions of search results, our users would not expect this to be the first result for that common search, and we do not want to promote the Web sites of hate organizations, so we have asked Google to remove this particular site from the results it provides to us."
At Google, a Web site's ranking is determined by computer algorithms using thousands of factors to calculate a page's relevance to any given query, a company representative said. The company can't tweak the results because of that automation and the need to maintain the integrity of the results, she said.
"In this particular example, the page is relevant to the query and many people have linked to it, giving it more PageRank than some of the other pages. These two factors contribute to its ranking," the representative wrote in an e-mail.
The results on Microsoft's search engine are "not an endorsement, in any way, of the viewpoints held by the owners of that content, said Justin Osmer, senior product manager for Windows Live Search.
"The ranking of our results is done in an automated manner through our algorithm which can sometimes lead to unexpected results," he said. "We always work to maintain the integrity of our results to ensure that they are not editorialized."
Search engines have added tools, like the ability to refine the search by date and source, and some offer suggestions for narrowing the search or offer shortcuts to more popular content. Some even offer academic vertical search sites, as Google Scholar and Windows Live Search do. Windows Live Search also allows users to create macros to do automated searches on their favorite Web sites. But many people either don't know about those tools or know how to use them to improve their queries.
"For some people, if the answer isn't in the first few results it might as well not be there," said Gary Price, founder and editor of the ResourceShelf blog and director of online resources at Ask.com. "No matter how smart and helpful search engines get, they're never going to replace librarians."