The World Wide Web has a vast amount of information contained within it on just about any topic you can imagine. The problem with this immense repertoire of data, then, is how to find the particular information you're interested in.
The best way to begin is to come up with a search strategy. What kind of information are you looking for? Are you just beginning your research and want to find very general information? Are you looking for more granular information? Do you already have something very specific in mind that you want to find?
Whatever type of information you're looking for will affect where you look for it. See the descriptions of the different search engines to determine which kind of search engine best suits your needs. Once you've figured this out, you'll have to perform a keyword search.
Unless you're navigating through the categories of a directory (such as Yahoo or LookSmart), you'll be using keyword terms to search the Internet.
When doing so, there are a few basics to remember:
Spelling: One of the easiest mistakes to make when searching for information is to misspell your query. If you get few or bad results, check to make sure you've spelled everything correctly, or try alternate ways of spelling your words (e.g. color vs. colour or center vs., centre).
Synonyms: Sometimes using different words or more common terms that mean the same thing can greatly improve your results. For instance, you may be more successful using the keyword "TV" rather than "television" or "tired" rather than "fatigued".
Be specific: Don't be afraid to tell a search engine exactly what you're looking for. Use precise terms to get the most relevant results. For example, search for "Subaru dealerships in Omaha " rather than "station wagon" if you're looking to buy an Outback. If, however, this doesn't work and you get too few results, you may have to...
Make your search more general: There are times when your search can be too specific, and you'll get no results. If this happens, try broadening your query topic. Searching for the generic product category, for instance, may return better results than searching for specific product names or numbers.
By default, search engines use some kind of logic to search for your query. In many cases, they'll begin by retrieving results that contain all of your query terms, then some of them, and finally any one of them. If, therefore you enter a query for Anne of Green Gables it'll begin by searching for pages including all of these terms, then some of them (perhaps giving you results for Anne Green ) and then any of them. By the end, most results are highly irrelevant, as they match only one of your terms.
To get around this, most search engines support search operators, or advanced search features, that help you to be more specific in your search, allowing you to tell the search engine EXACTLY what you want to see in your results. Here are a few of the most common ones:
Using the + sign while searching lets the search engine know that terms following this sign MUST appear in all pages returned in the results. Therefore a search for +Anne +of +Green +Gables
tells the search engine that each and every one of these terms must be present on a page in order for it to be returned as a result. A word of caution: using the + sign does not mean that your required keywords will appear on the page in the same sense or order as they appear in your query - it just guarantees that each word will be on the page somewhere .
Using the - sign while searching tells the search engine what terms NOT to include in your results. For example, a search for +apple +orchards -computer
tells the search engine to exclude any results containing the term "computer". This is great to exclude results for queries that might have several meanings.
For both the + and - signs it is important not to leave a space between the operator and the search term that follows.
Very similar to search science, Boolean also allow you to specify what should and shouldn't be included in your results. Here are the most common:
The Boolean AND works very much like the + sign, specifying that all the terms entered must be present in your results. Also like the + sign, it only guarantees that each of your terms is somewhere on the page: Subaru AND Outback
This operator tells the search engine that at least one of the terms entered must be included in the results listed - this is perfect for when there may be many words (synonyms, for example) that are relevant to your search, but you're not sure which may have been used by a web site author. For example, dizziness OR disorientation OR lightheadedness OR vertigo
Boolean NOT works much like the - sign, telling the search engine that the terms specified are not to be included in your results. This is great for eliminating information that is irrelevant in the context of your query. For example,
apple AND orchards NOT computer
Phrases: " "
Enclosing your query in quotes is perhaps one of the most useful search operators - it tells the search engine that it must only return results containing the EXACT phrase you've entered (treating it like a single search term). Therefore, a search for "Anne of Green Gables"
means that all results must contain the phrase "Anne of Green Gables" in order to be displayed.
This is different than searching for
+Anne +of +Green +Gables
as in each of these cases, you may get results that include all of these words, but not necessarily together - for instance, Anne Gables may have a site about her favorite color, green.
A note on Stop Words: Many search engines have a predetermined list of words they ignore, regardless of your search operators, due to how common they are. These are called stop words. Examples include or, of, a, the, in, to, the, etc...
The main problem when searching is that search engines are not as intelligent as their users. While the keywords you're searching for have meaning to you, to the search engine, they're just a string of characters it has to find a match for.
Relevance is often determined according to how frequently your search term appears in a document, or where it appears on a page (the higher it is on the page, the more relevant it is considered). This doesn't always translate to a good result - more often than not, you're interested in finding information about your keywords, not looking to see them repeated over and over again.
Search engines are also limited in that they're incapable of distinguishing between words that are spelled the same, but have different meaning (e.g. "apple" the fruit and "Apple" the computer company). They also cannot return results that are relevant, containing synonyms to the words you've used, but that you haven't actually typed into the search box (if you search for "TV listings" it won't recognize that "television listings" is also relevant to you).
It is therefore important to remember: Use your head when searching, and tell the search engine exactly what you are and are not looking for (the use of search operators will help you do this). While search engines are a fast way of finding information, they're also dumb - you're the one with the brains.
Just as important as finding the right keywords to use to return the best results, is understanding where the results are coming from. As mentioned in our Search Engine Guide ("Hybrids"), it is now common for search engines to form alliances with one another and to serve each other's content. This can happen in multiple ways. Here are a few possibilities:
Oftentimes, when one search engine's database is limited, they get another search engine to serve as their "backup", providing results when they've run out or don't have any to display. This is often the case with directories, as their overall coverage tends to be more limited than indexed engines. LookSmart, for example, employs Inktomi to serve their backup results, and Yahoo uses Google. Backup results are a good way to provide a more positive user experience, as they'll encounter few or no results less often.
"Sponsored", "Featured" or "Popular" listings are often not very well defined. In most cases, they refer to paid results, whereby the owner of the site pays a CPC (Cost-Per-Click) or CPM (Cost-Per-Thousand-Impressions) to have their site listed for particular keyword queries. They're usually placed just above, within or wholly apart from the sites regular search results - it's important to look for them. These listings are, generally speaking, advertisements, but can still be very relevant to your search. Review their title/description to see if it fits your needs and then move on to actual search results. Sponsored et al listings can originate "in-house" (from the search engine you're using), or can come from elsewhere.
Once you've refined your keywords and have a set of promising looking results to choose from, your next step is to evaluate them, and to determine if they fit your needs. Here are a few things to pay attention to:
* Assess any potential biases that may be reflected within its content. For instance, a site created by PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) may have a much different tone than one created by the National Pork Producers Council.
* Rate its credibility. A government site detailing the side effect of certain drugs may be more reliable than the drug company's site.
* Establish the motive behind the site. Is the site there to inform or to sell? Is it a personal homepage meant for a limited audience, or is it a corporate website meant for the mass public?
Who's the intended audience? Some sites are written with a particular audience in mind. You can often determine who the site is addressing by looking at the language used - sites intended for academics and professionals will use a much more complex vocabulary than those intended for the general public.
When was the site last updated? This is not always important. If you're searching for historical data, then whether or not a site has been updated in the last few months is irrelevant. If, however, you're researching current events or up-to-date drug information, then frequently updated information is essential.
Is the site easy to use? If a site is hard to navigate, it makes extracting information more time-consuming and difficult.
Is the information relevant to your needs? While this seems obvious, it is important to determine if the information contained in the site is relevant to you - does it address the particular aspect of your topic that interests you?