Tips for searching on the internet

The perfect page is somewhere out there waiting to be found, the question is can you find it?
Most people use a search engine by simply typing a few words into the query box and then scrolling through whatever comes up. Sometimes their choice of words ends up narrowing the search unduly and causing them not to find what they're looking for. More often the end result of the search is a haystack of off-target web pages that must be combed through. You can do better than that, and that's what this page is about.

The most comprehensive engine out there at the moment seems to be Google, and that's what we'll focus on here. The first step in becoming a facile catcher of web pages is to master Google's Advanced Search form located at http://www.google.com/advanced_search. Bookmark it! Drag the bookmark to your browser's toolbar so that it's always available.

If you make a habit of using the four techniques described below, you'll be a much better searcher than 90% of all web-users. It's just four things, and each will provide you with a better net for information catching.


5 Preliminary searching tips you should know:
Tip 01: Consider your options:
Choose a search engine, directory or library in accordance with the kind of search you are doing and the kind of results you are seeking.


Tip 02: Are you looking for a Web site?
Information that might be contained within Usenet? Academic articles that may only be retrievable with gopher?


Tip 03: Determine your aims:
Do you want a specific hard-to-find document on an esoteric subject, or general information on a broader topic? Do you need to search the entire Web, or is what you are seeking likely to be found on a number of sites, or only the most popular sites?


Tip 04: Take a wild guess:
Determine whether the information you are looking for is likely to be in a page's title or first paragraph, or buried deeper within the document or site.


Tip 05: Use a search engine's advanced features:
If available, and read the help files if you are unclear about its searching procedure.


5 important general searching tips you should know:
Tip 01: Enhance your search terms:
Enter synonyms, alternate spellings and alternate forms (e.g. dance, dancing, dances) for your search terms.


Tip 02: Enter variations:
Enter all the singular or unique terms which are likely to be included in the document or site you are seeking.


Tip 03: Avoid using very common terms:
Common terms may lead to a preponderance of irrelevant search results.


Tip 04: Understand your search engine:
Determine how your search engine uses capitals and plurals, and enter capitalized or plural forms of your search words if appropriate.


Tip 05: At first, focus your search considerably:
Use a phrase or proper name if possible to narrow your search and therefore retrieve more relevant results (unless you want a large number of results).


Carefully select your search terms:
Broad or general terms will return thousands of possible sites. Try to use terms that are more specific to your topic. To narrow your terms, look at sites that you already have found and that are relevant to your topic. Identify possible search terms from those sites. You also can combine terms, using Boolean Operators.


Boolean operators
Boolean operators are words that allow you to combine search terms in most search engines.
Operator 01: AND
AND tells the search engine to find both terms on the same site. For instance, entering "business AND ethics" would instruct the search engine to find web pages that contain both words, "business" and "ethics."


Operator 02: OR
OR instructs the search engine to find one term or the other. Entering "business OR ethics" would cause the search engine to look for web pages that contain either the word "business" or the word "ethics," but not necessarily both words. As you can imagine, if you use OR, the search engine could return thousands of sites. OR is most useful when the same term may appear in two different ways. For instance, you could use "national football league"* OR NFL to find web pages about the national football league.


Operator 03: NOT
NOT tells the search engine to find pages that contain the first word but not the second. This limitation is helpful when you know your search term is likely to appear with another term that does not interest you.


Operator 04: NEAR
NEAR only appears in some search engines, but it tells the search engine only to return web pages in which the terms are near each other. Usually the terms are within a few words of each other.


Operator 05: Symbols
For many search engines, you can use "+" as a substitute for AND and "-" as a substitute for NOT. You can also use quotation marks to indicate that you want to find an exact phrase.


Operator 06: Learn how each specific site works
Each search engine is slightly different from the others, but they all have Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) or instructions that explain how that specific site works. Taking a few minutes to read these FAQs before you start searching will save you lots of time later.


Steps:
Step 01: Start Narrow
The biggest problem people have with search engines (perhaps) is that they're so good! You can type in a word and within a fraction of a second you'll have 20,000 pages to look at. Most of those pages will not be exactly what you're after, and you have to spend a load of time wading through the 19,993 that aren't quite right.

If you know what you're after, why not start by asking for it as precisely as you can?

Think of all the words that would always appear on the perfect page. Put those in the WITH ALL THE WORDS field.

Think of all the distracting pages that might also turn up because one or more of your search terms has multiple meanings. What words can you think of that might help you eliminate those pages? Put those in the WITHOUT field.

If there's a term with synonyms, either of which might appear on the page you're after, put them in the WITH ANY OF THE WORDS field.

Try each of the searches now, and record how many sites you find.

As you do each search, take note of what kinds of things turn up. Notice that the more specific the terms you include and exclude, the more focused your search.


Step 02: Find Exact Phrases
Words hang together in predictable ways. If you type a phrase into the EXACT PHRASE field in Google, you'll be able to locate pages in which those words appear together in that order. This is obviously useful for finding things that have a proper name consisting of several words (e.g., places, book titles, people).

It's also useful when you can remember a distinctive phrase in something you've read, but now need to locate it. What's the rest of the poem that starts with "Jenny kissed me when we met"?

The ability to search for phrases can be surprisingly useful. Do you suspect that something your student turned in was plagiarized, or at least heavily borrowed without attribution? Type in a phrase or two from the paper and see if it turns up elsewhere! You can also check to see if your own work is being copied without your permission.

Another use for this feature: stamping out urban legends. Next time you get an e-mail warning you about a repressive new law about to pass or a vicious computer virus about to attack, check it out before passing on misinformation to others. Type in any unusual or unique phrase you see in the e-mail and see if others have commented on this particular rumor.


Step 03: Trim Back the URL
The next net is not Google-specific, though you'll find yourself using it often once you get better at Googling.

Often you'll find a terrific page nestled deep down inside a folder inside a folder inside a folder. You suspect that there are other pages you'd find interesting nearby. How to you find them? Trim the URL step by step.

Sometimes you'll get a notice saying FORBIDDEN! Sometimes you'll get a list of files and directories. Sometimes you'll get an web page with more links. Each step back tells you more about where the page came from.

This is also a good strategy to try when a page goes missing (that is, you get a 404 message). Perhaps someone at the site moved the page into a new folder or renamed a folder. Trace your way back to the top and drill down again to see if you can find it.


Step 04: Look for Similar Pages
Once you've found something you like on Google, it's very easy (and useful) to find similar pages. How? Below the advanced search fields that you've been using up until now are another two fields. These allow you to find pages that Google has deemed to be similar to or linked to any URL you type in.

How does Google know that two pages are similar? The details of the inner workings of search engines are a trade secret, but it's safe to assume that it's based on similarities in the words and the external links on each page. All that matters is that it works surprisingly well, especially when you're not sure what key words to look for.

Use this tool to find more of a good thing. Use it to find pages that are linked to a page that you find useful. Chances are, those pages might be useful to you, too.

And there's always ego surfing: if you've uploaded a page of your own to a public server and it's been there for awhile, find out who else is linking to it.

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