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College Resource Center : Health Careers : Readings for Successful School Performance : Successful Web Searching

Successful Web Searching

Source: Marold, K. A. and G. Larsen, 2002. Internet Navigation and Exploration. St. Paul: Paradigm Publishing Inc.

A good search strategy can help you find the most direct route to what you are looking for. It will also help you avoid getting too much information. There is more than one way to find an item on the Internet, but many of these involve taking unnecessary detours that will slow you down.

To devise a search strategy, you need to define your search topic, choose the best keywords to find your search topic, choose the best search tools, and take advantage of the different search conventions.

Defining Your Search

The first step in any search activity is determining exactly what it is you are looking for. Before you do any kind of search you should:

  1. Determine the objective. What are you trying to do? Are you planning to apply for a job or to write a story about applying for a job? Your objective will help you narrow the focus of your search and determine what kinds of information about your search topic would be helpful.
  2. Define the topic. Imagine your objective is to look for a job. It is more than likely you are not looking for just any kind of job, so you need to decide exactly what kind of work you are looking for, such as a forklift operator. You also need to define in what specific geographical area(s) you would be willing to work. There will be a lot of information on forklift operators on the Internet, much of which does not concern finding a job in that field. Since you are interested in finding out about job opportunities as a forklift operator, you would be interested in finding information on positions available for forklift operators in the state in which you want to work.

Choosing Keywords

Once you have clarified exactly what kind of information you are looking for, then you can try to think of keywords that you would expect to find in the material you are seeking. When choosing keywords, it is useful to remember how a search tool works. When you begin a search, you key a keyword(s), and the search tool searches its database and returns a ranked list of sites that include your keyword(s). The search process is somewhat like a database or spreadsheet query, where the program searches data and returns information that matches criteria you have specified. A Web search may return an extensive results list with many hits that match your search term. Your goal is to get a helpful ranked results list that places the most meaningful and appropriate sites at the top of the list.

Bearing in mind the critical importance of keywords, take a look at what you wrote down when you defined your search topic. What keywords would you expect to find in any document related to what you are looking for? Keywords can be subject terms that reflect the topic of a single sentence, a passage, a page, or an entire Web site. Examples of subject keyword terms are "American writers," "maps," or "newspapers." Other keywords can be very specific, such as the name of a person, place, or thing - for example, "Hemingway," "Minnesota," or "New York Times." You might decide to use either type of keyword alone or in combination, such as "maps Minnesota" or "American writers Hemingway."

If, after defining your search topic, you decide that you want to look for forklift operator jobs in Minnesota, try to visualize what the material you are seeking would look like. What would it say? An announcement for a job as a forklift operator in Minnesota would almost certainly contain the terms "forklift operator," "Minnesota," and "job," so key jobs forklift operators Minnesota. If the results list does not produce what you are looking for, try using synonymous keywords. For example, you might also try "positions available" or "work" in place of "jobs," or "drivers" instead of "operators." This is where creativity can help. If you still do not find what you need, try to think of any other terms that might be related to what you are looking for. Switching the order of the keywords can change the results as well, so you might try that if you are unsuccessful on your first few attempts. Remember that search engines generally consider the first word as the most important when ranking sites.

Selecting the Best Search Tools

Tips and Tools Make Sure You Spel It Right!
Everyone is in a rush these days, and when searching for information on the Internet, you may misspell a word in your haste to find what you want. Doing that will have a dramatic effect on your search, since the search tool you are using will be searching for the wrong term. The results list may find information from the Internet containing the same misspelling, if it is a common one, but it is more likely that it will fail to find anything related to what you want. If you cannot understand why you are not getting the results you expected, one of the first things you should do is use the Back button on your browser to make sure that your keywords are spelled correctly.

To conduct an effective search you need to use the right tools. If what you are looking for is easily categorized by subject, you will probably find the best results by using a directory. If what you are searching for is difficult to categorize, or very specialized in nature, you will probably find what you are looking for by using a search engine. If you are having trouble defining your search you might want to try a site like Ask Jeeves, which allows you to ask questions using Natural Programming Language (NPL), and assists you by asking questions in return to help you refine your search.

Do not forget to take advantage of the internal search features of many Web sites. Internal search engines and directories are usually found on commercial and government Web sites containing large amounts of information, often organized around a single subject. You will typically find these specialized sites during a search using a search engine. These sites can be a gold mine, and through their internal search tools you can find information that would not appear in the results list from a normal search engine or directory search. Web sites focusing on a topic or subject and with search tool features are too numerous to list, but you can find a site for almost any topic you can think of.

If you do not find what you are looking for right away, keep trying. Try different keywords, change the order of the keywords, change search engines or directories - just keep trying. The information is almost certainly out there somewhere on the Internet; it is up to you to find it. The more you use the skills you have just learned, the more adept you will become at finding what you want. You will soon be adding your own methods to your Internet search toolbox.

Using Operators

In processing your search request, search engines and directories utilize rules to sort information known as search conventions. You can narrow your search and improve your chances of getting a meaningful results list by understanding search conventions and by using search operators. Search operators (sometimes referred to as qualifiers) are the symbols representing a specific action to be performed by the search engine or directory. The operators and conventions for searching are slightly different with each Web search tool, so using Help, Search Tips, and any local page hints and guides are recommended. Some of the operators and conventions are described that can boost the effectiveness of your search efforts.

Boolean Operators Boolean operators were named after George Boole, a mathematician. They are logical terms used to combine keywords, such as AND, NOT, NEAR, and OR. Depending on the search engine or directory, Boolean terms may be recognized by keying the Boolean operator, such as AND and NOT, a symbol such as "+" for AND or "-" for NOT, or they may be assumed, as is the case with AND. Most search engines assume the space before keywords as AND. Using the AND operator with keywords (if required by the search engine) will turn up any material in which all of the terms occur. This can be helpful but tends to produce a lot of results; you may have trouble finding what you need in a long results list.

If that is the case, using the NOT symbol (-) can be very helpful. Suppose that you want to find information on the style of music known as the blues. Entering blues might turn up a lot of documents related to the use of the word blue as a color. To avoid this, you can enter the search term as blues - colors or blues NOT colors, which should cut down on the number of hits relating to blues and color and increase those that concern blues as a style of music.

Using NEAR between two keywords (for example, keyword NEAR keyword) will turn up anything with those two words occurring within 10 words of each other. If you want to find out about concerts in New York, entering concerts NEAR New York will increase the odds that the appearance of the term New York in any document found will be related to concert. Without using NEAR, you will likely find many documents containing the terms concert and New York, but the two terms may come from different parts of the document and have no relationship to each other.

Tips and Tools Using Operators
When using operators, key the operator in all capital letters, not lowercase letters. Some search engines may accept the lowercase format, but the convention is uppercase.

The Boolean operator OR can be used when keying several synonymous terms. Using OR means that the search tool will retrieve all documents containing either term. This is an advantage when you are looking for something that might be categorized under more than one subject. For instance, if you want to learn more about large bodies of water, enter the keywords oceans OR seas. This will produce hits that contain either of these terms. On the other hand, if you enter oceans AND seas, you will find hits containing both of those terms, but not material containing only one of the terms.

Knowing Boolean operators will be helpful, but many search engines and directories have now automated this function with their advanced search options. If you look at the Advanced Search page for Google shown in Figure 1.1, you will see that you need only enter keywords in the correct box rather than having to key Boolean operators. However, knowing Boolean operators can save you time because you won't need to open the Advanced Search page.

Figure 1 Google Advanced Search
google advanced search window

Relational Operators The second type of operators that will assist your search efforts are known as relational operators, symbols describing the chronological (time-related) relationship between keywords and numbers. The most useful relationship operators are represented by:

< less than
> greater than
<= less than or equal to
>= greater than or equal to
= equal to
Tips and Tools Relational Operators
When keying relational operators, include one space before and after the operator. For example, key artists > 1990, rather than artists>1990.

Suppose you want to find out more information on Jazz, but are not much interested in Jazz before 1980. You could enter Jazz > 1980, which will instruct the search engine or directory to look for any information on Jazz after the year 1980. The results will not be perfect, but you will find that your results list will mostly contain information on Jazz after the year 1980. You can even combine operators, just as you can in mathematical formulas. If you are interested only in a certain period in Jazz history, you could enter Jazz > 1900 < 1930, which will instruct the search engine or directory to look for information on Jazz containing dates between the years 1900 and 1930.

Other Operators In addition to the relational operators, there are several special characters that will help define searches. For example, the wildcard operator is represented by the dollar sign ($) or asterisk (*). This operator allows you to find all words that begin with a root word or combination of letters that you specify. Entering sail* will find all keywords beginning with sail such as sailors, sailcloth, and so on. One example of how this feature can come in handy is when you do not care if a word is singular or plural. If you want to find information on skiing, you might also be interested in information containing the words skiers, skis, and ski resorts. Using the wildcard operator with ski (ski*) will return hits with all of the ski-related words you are looking for.

The use of quotation marks around a phrase or combination of words instructs the search engine to look for this exact sequence of words. Keying "George W. Bush" will return a results list containing material with that exact sequence of words somewhere in the document. This can be helpful because you can often visualize a sequence of words that would almost certainly appear in the information you are looking for. If you do not place the keywords in quotation marks, the information retrieved will contain documents with your keywords in them, but they may be scattered around the document and meaningless in terms of what you want to find.

Whether or not you capitalize a keyword is usually important. Most search engines are case sensitive, meaning that they distinguish between words beginning with uppercase letters (capitals) and lowercase. If you are looking for information about the country Turkey, this would be very important. If you enter turkey in the search text box, you will find information dealing with the kind of turkeys you eat on Thanksgiving Day. But if you enter Turkey, you will find the results list contains mostly information concerning the country known as Turkey.

Using a period after a word or word stem will limit hits to information with that exact word or word stem. If you want to find material containing the word news, but not newspaper, keying news. will ensure that only material containing the keyword news will appear on the results list.

You also need to be familiar with the search conventions employed by search engines and directories. Do not include the articles and prepositions a, an, the, in, or of in your searches. Search engines index the full text of many files, but the articles are understood. So unless you are searching for an exact title, such as The Declaration of Independence, do not include these words. For example, in a search for the American revolution you would key American + revolution, without the. Table 1 summarizes the conventions and operators described above and can be used for reference.

Table 1 Conventions and Operators for Web Searches
Operator or Convention Purpose Format Example to Key
include both terms; narrows the search nothing
(blank space)
history Jazz

Jazz + history
Jazz AND history
exclude by term; narrows the search -
blues - colors
blues NOT colors
include either term; broadens the search nothing
(blank space)
Jazz history

Jazz, history
Jazz OR history
NEAR find keywords within 10 words of each other keyword near keyword blues NEAR city
> greater than > blues > 1929
< less than < real estate < 100,000
>= greater than or equal to >= blues >= 1960
<= less than or equal to <= blues <= 1960
= equal to = assassinations = 1888
$ * truncate, cut off word stem$, or word stem* sail* (to find sailing, sailors, sailboats, etc.)
“ ” search for exact phrase “phrase” “The Right Stuff”
. (period) avoid stems word. news. (to prevent newspaper, newscast, newsletter, etc.)
capitalization distinguish between common and proper nouns Use uppercase or lowercase initial Turkey (for the country)
turkey (for the bird)
articles unnecessary unless looking for titles Do not use a, an, the, of, in, etc. The Agricultural Movement
(wrong) Agricultural Movement (right)


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