Search Engines

Using search engines and directories can be a bit overwhelming because of the volume of hits which are returned by the search terms used by most inexperienced or casual information searchers.

There is an art and a science to searching any database from library catalog, through periodical index on to a file on a World Wide Web server. Library catalogs and periodical indexes/databases usually follow particular standards and rules which make it possible to search particular fields within the record or full-text. This helps control the number of records returned and is quite specific and likely to be what is being sought.

General basic searches on World Wide Web engines and directories are likely to return irrelevant hits because most have been indexed on all words in the document and not on specific subjects. Some engines have organized and indexed their catalogs of pages so that desired information will appear more often than do other engines. The algorithms for searching and indexing are improving in general but still bring in huge numbers of hits.

When doing general searches it is very important to select search terms that are as specific as possible and even unique to the topic you are hunting. When faced with a huge number of hits, go back and add one or more search terms and browse this list of hits for specialist words which will be useful search terms and repeat the process.

Some search engines assume the 'and' between terms but some will search for adjacent terms so it is wise to look at the online instructions from the search engine company or search your terms with and without the 'and'. Search engines generally will not search 'stop words' such as: a, an, the, it, for, as ...

Many search engines have Advanced Search options which allow searchers to exert more control on the number and type of files returned. Some will search exact phrases, all of the words, or any of the words. Some will allow searchers to designate files to exclude because of the presence of particular words. In the preferences or options choices on some engines, it is possible to select the number of hits returned per page, whether or not to open pages in new browser windows and even to select some content filters. The number of advanced features continues to grow so it is worth checking on advanced search possibilities when needing to see if desired information is freely available on the WWW.

Some services offer directories or subject categories on their main pages. These are collections of websites grouped with the possibility to use an algorithm just to search among the pages pre-grouped in the category. Other websites are subject specific, having cataloged only websites pertinent to a topic such as law or human rights or economics. These also help searchers control the number of hits returned.

If looking for images or graphics, use one of the engine/directories which specialize in these and do not return any textual information.

Tips on evaluating information sources including webpages are found on in the notebook series, Note #B1.