A trusted search engine starts the search journey but once users have typed their search query into Google, the focus then shifts to the individual’s bias toward certain markers and the selection process begins. The search and selection process is essential to analyse if we want to understand how and when trust markers are used and not simply just acknowledge their existence.

Trust markers act as a way for individuals to hold onto some of the control that the act of trusting takes away from them because these markers act as the individual’s toolkit and make them feel in control of the selection process. As Sianne, a survey respondent said in response to the question Do you trust most of what you read online? Why?, “Yes, because I know how to search for reliable, educated and valuable information.” That sounds like a response from a young woman who believes she is in control of her online world.

Upon analysing the search diaries I discovered that there were 10 common ways individuals searched for information. In addition, these search patterns could be clustered into three cases according to how much knowledge the individual had at the time when searching for the information:

Each search pattern used a wide variety of trust markers in the end as the user decided whether the information could be trusted or not. Perhaps obvious, however worth noting, the most complicated and time-consuming searches occurred when individuals had no knowledge of what the answer to what they were searching for could be.

I discovered 20 trust markers. These are a list of the top 10:

1. Information appears on other sites.

2. The information is associated with a recognisable brand.

3. Content appears well written with no spelling and grammar mistakes. Content also features stylistic traits associated with the genre of information. Example: academic journals use references, are associated with a university and have a bibliography attached.

4. The author of the content can be validated as a trusted source: they are associated with a trusted organisation, they have a ‘Google’ presence that the individual perceives highly of and their content can be corroborated with information found on other websites.

5. The information appears on an ‘official’ website, ie. the website represents the digital ‘home’ of a well-established and trusted source of information. The word ‘official’ was most often referred to when talking about international companies, educational institutions or websites with strong ties to government.

6. The information appears on the website of a reputable media organisation, ie. often these websites had printed counter-parts.

7. What the URL looks like. For students looking for information to source in a paper that they will be graded in, URL’s ending in .org and .edu are more trusted.

8. Design and presentation of a website. Students that I spoke to preferred a clean and modern design. I feel it’s worth noting that another trust marker, adverts, is tied to the one of design and presentation: four individuals said that the presence of too many adverts makes a site look untrustworthy.

9. The website has a community presence and the comments are overwhelmingly positive in sentiment. Bad language and tardy grammar from community members were warning signs of untrustworthy content.

10. Although I grouped individuals in authority such as teachers, parents, family members separately to respondents’ peer group, both groups received 10 mentions. A website that comes recommended from a trusted person is generally taken at face value to be trusted.

Online trust markers are the digital artefacts left behind by each individual as they arrange and style information. As such, trust markers are rooted in our social selves and give us insight into who constructed that piece of information. Like Ashlee, a research participant, said in her interview with me, it’s about finding information that you can “relate to”. When users are searching for trusted information they’re searching for something or someone they can relate to and identify as trustworthy. In this way, trust markers help us to identify online information that we believe was written by someone we can relate to and trust. As such, trust markers don’t simply alert users to what’s trustworthy but connect individuals to an imagined community of online authors.