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Search in 2023: Do people trust the information they find online?

Published on 2023-04-11 by Tessa Anaya

Search providers claim to give us the most useful answers to our queries, but do web users in Canada trust what they see? How can trust levels factor into SEO strategies for online and social media search? We asked 1,000 of online search users to deliver insights.

social media search vs search engines

Most web users in Canada search online every day, but finding content on the web has never been an exact science. When we type a query into a search box, there might be billions of potential pages that match, and the search provider has to decide which are the most appropriate. Refining this has helped firms like Google become a preferred platform for participants in our survey.

But search engines don’t make money just by providing appropriate links. Ads and sponsored content can influence what appears on our search results pages, too. And search engines often use data they collect about us to make results relevant to us. None of us really knows exactly how the providers’ search algorithms work, so how can we trust the information we get from them?

As well as using search engines, 41% of people in Canada also use social media to search for content. Given that anyone with an internet connection can post anything on these platforms with barely any restrictions, there is no way to tell how reliable the Tweets, videos, and posts we find on these networks are.

To understand how consumers feel, we surveyed more than 1,000 web users in Canada who search online at least once a month. In a previous article, we explored the differences between their attitudes toward social media and traditional search engines. Here, we focus on trust and privacy when searching online.

Overall, more people in our survey use search engines (96%) than social media (42%) to search. There are multiple reasons for this, which we explored in part 1. Force of habit is a major factor, but trust also plays a role.

Of those who don’t use social media to search, the most selected reason (chosen by 40%) was that they don’t trust the results they get when doing so. But among people who don’t use search engines, only 20% said it was because the results were not trustworthy.

In spite of this, few search engine users take the results they get at face value. Only 8% of them say they fully trust the information they find when using them. Half said they generally trust it, but with caution, and another 41% said it depends on the query and the sources.

internet users trust in web search engines

People often go out of their way to verify that information from search engines is genuine. More than one-third (36%) said they double-check against another source most of the time, and 59% said they do so sometimes, if they’re not sure of the information.

LinkedIn is the social platform most trusted by its users

Those who search using social media have slightly less confidence in the platforms than search engine users. 5% said they fully trust the information they find there, while 26% say they generally trust it, and 63% say it depends on the query and sources.

internet users trust in social media search

Web users tend to double-check the information they see or receive on social media just as they do for content they get via search engines. 39% look to verify it ‘most of the time’, while more than half (56%) do so sometimes, whenever they’re not sure about the information.

Some social media platforms are clearly considered more trustworthy than others, but none are considered an absolute source of truth or highly suspicious.

social media search platforms trust for users

People that search using social media think that LinkedIn, Reddit, and YouTube, were more reliable. These networks have the highest proportion rating the information they see on them as ‘very trustworthy’ or ‘trustworthy most of the time.’ At the other end of the scale, Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram were most likely to be considered ‘not trustworthy at all’, although the percentage of respondents saying this for any platform did not exceed 11% in any case.

Did you know? Social media marketing software can help automate and streamline your online campaigns. These tools allow you to create, manage, and track the success of marketing activities across Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and other social networks.

Audiences, journeys, and content will be different depending on the social platform. SMEs should take time to understand how to differentiate their campaigns accordingly and execute them efficiently, while monitoring performance and adjusting as necessary.

Web users appreciate the personal touch

Many search engines and social platforms aim to tailor their search results to the individual user by understanding their intent. The idea behind this is to provide more relevant information, but it also means collecting data about the user in order to deliver the results.

Broadly speaking, web users felt positive about personalized search. 19% said they found it very useful and 57% somewhat useful. Those who like it said it makes it easier to find what they want, saves them time, and can provide occasional pleasant surprises. On the other hand, those who do not find personalized search results useful said that they don’t want the search engine to decide in advance what they might find interesting. They also cited privacy concerns and the fact that these algorithms often fail to provide the results they actually want.

personalized search engines pros and cons

Location is another way to make search results more relevant. For example, users in Canada may be familiar with the experience of searching for information, only to find content from US sources that’s not relevant to their needs. Location based search should minimize this.

Localizing search results is especially valuable for those using a mobile —the most popular way for web users in Canada to search online. If a user searches for gas stations, Thai restaurants, or pharmacies, for example, they will get results from businesses that are closest to them at that moment. Of course, the search provider will need to know the searcher’s location in order to deliver these results.

Web users do value location-based results when searching: 23% said it’s very useful, and 55% said it’s somewhat useful. Those who like it say that it makes it easier to find places that are nearby and that it provides more accurate search results. But some are hesitant— they worry about privacy and the fact that localized searches can skew results in an unhelpful way.

Did you know? SMEs can personalize their own web and marketing activity with personalization software. Visitors to your website get content that’s unique to them, like recommendations based on their previous activities. You can also use personalization tools to gather intelligence about your customers and deliver customized emails or ads.

People take steps to protect privacy when searching

Using the web in 2023 often means sharing data. Companies need personal information to provide the goods and services they offer (names, addresses, payment details, etc.), but they sometimes collect less obvious data, like our browsing habits or location. This can help them provide more relevant search results or targeted advertising, for example.

In most cases, web users can choose what data they share and put safeguards in place to maintain their online privacy. Doing so may be as easy as checking or unchecking a box when filling out a form, but some actions require more in-depth knowledge of technology.

Nevertheless, most users say they take steps to protect their privacy when searching, with 30% doing so always, 53% sometimes, and 14% rarely. Among these respondents, the most common tactics are using strong, unique passwords, sharing as little information as possible, and using two-factor authentication.

Top tip Our own research suggests that customers favour privacy-focused companies and will stop using a brand if they disagree with its practices. SMEs can stay on top of data protection and privacy by reviewing their policies, ensuring they are in line with industry best practices, and investing in the right security software.

Search engines aim to deliver results that are trustworthy and reliable. Although this can be difficult to gauge, web users can often tell how reliable online content is based on the source, so we asked them to pick their top three most trustworthy sources of information.

No single source was chosen by a majority, but respondents rated scientific organizations, well-known brands, and the government most highly. News organizations and recognized content creators scored less well.

types of search engine sources and trust for users

Instead of providing information from disparate sources in answer to customers’ queries, search engines could go a step further by generating answers directly, based on the data they find.

When taking this survey in early 2023, ChatGPT was one of the hottest topics in technology. This chatbot powered by artificial intelligence from startup OpenAI aims to be able to mimic human language and can synthesize complex texts about any subject in response to questions. It has been the topic of much conversation among writers, journalists, and content creators, and has already prompted responses from Google and Microsoft.

We asked respondents if they would be happy for AI to take their search queries, look at the available information online, and provide them with a single synthesized answer. The responses were tentative. While some said it would make search easier (13%), most said it would depend on the subject (43%), and many said they would still have to double check the answers (27%). A large proportion (17%) said they would simply never trust AI when searching online.

In summary: web users recognize that online information may not be reliable

Overall, web users in Canada are happy to use search engines and social media searches to find information online but acknowledge that some of the information that they surface won’t be reliable. They are also aware of the trade-offs between privacy and convenience when searching, and take steps to protect their safety online.

SMEs should ensure that their web content appears on or alongside trusted platforms and brands. They should also make sure that their data protection, privacy, and security are in order so that customers feel safe to use their services.

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GetApp’s data for this study was gathered through an online survey conducted in February 2023 in which we surveyed 1004 people residing in Canada from all regions in the country. The sample of participants is representative of the population of Canada regarding aspects of age and gender, and the criteria for selecting participants are as follows:

  • Over 18 years of age
  • Must search online at least a few times a month

Note: The applications selected in this article are examples to show a feature in context and are not intended as endorsements or recommendations. They have been obtained from sources believed to be reliable at the time of publication.

This article may refer to products, programs or services that are not available in your country, or that may be restricted under the laws or regulations of your country. We suggest that you consult the software provider directly for information regarding product availability and compliance with local laws.

About the author

Tessa is a Content Analyst for GetApp, delivering software-related insights to local SMEs. She was featured in the Globe and Mail, La Presse, the Financial Post, and Yahoo.

Tessa is a Content Analyst for GetApp, delivering software-related insights to local SMEs. She was featured in the Globe and Mail, La Presse, the Financial Post, and Yahoo.