We’ve written before here and here about the limitations of Google. So much of what we think we can find on Google is not there because it was never on the internet, or can disappear from Google’s results from one hour to the next.

Now comes a study conducted at Columbia University and reported in The Washington Post that says people are less likely to remember things they think they can recover via Google or other search engines.

Given the disconnect between what we think we can get off Google and what we often fail to find, that’s a disconcerting finding.

Broadly speaking, Google is fine for recalling things you used to look up in the World Almanac: What is Poland’s GDP? When did Groucho Marx die? Who is the junior senator from Wyoming?*


But unless you are extremely famous, Google is rotten at getting you information about yourself or most people you know. Court records, professional licenses, deeds and mortgages – all the pieces of our lives that help to write our life stories – these are rarely on Google. Google yourself and see if more than five percent of your whole life appears.

Our feedback indicates that our most useful tip about how to get the most out of Google is when we talk about “meta searching.” In brief, this is looking on Google for a way to find something that will lead you to the answer you want. If you’re searching for a particular ship, you may not find it on Google. But you probably will find indexes of ships (that may not be on line), or else names of agents you could call to track a ship down.

In this way, Google makes finding things faster, but you still have to use your head. You may also need a telephone and some energy to go somewhere to look things up in books or in databases not connected to the internet.

One last tip: before you head out to the library, write down the address. It may not be on Google either and even if it turns out to be, scientists say you may forget it before you arrive.


*$430 billion (2009); 1977; John Barrasso.