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Search Strategies

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Using a browser, such as Netscape Navigator or Microsoft Internet Explorer, can be fun -- but the size of the Internet makes it impossible to find information by searching each and every computer on the global network.

Think of the Internet as a disorganized library. Sure; each web site has a unique address, or URL. Information on the Internet, however, isn’t organized by topics.

Search Engines automate the process of filtering through the World-Wide-Web. It would not be possible to run a “real-time” search that would examine all files on all the computers on the Internet that meet some requested criterion.

Some Common Search Engines

Search Engines, such as Lycos and Alta Vista, actually perform their searches BEFORE anyone has actually asked for the information. These programs sift through the Internet, gather lists of available information that is contained in web pages, sort the lists, and store the results on the computer that runs that particular search engine.

Programs that constantly crawl through the Internet looking for information are called “spiders.” The best search engines are constantly updating their listings to maintain their indexes and keep information current.

When Internet users enter keywords into a search engine and submit the search to be executed, search sites generate a list of web pages who’s content matches the search criterion.

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String Matches
The Easy Way to Get Started

Getting starting to using search engine is easy, just enter the information you are seeking in the “keyword” text box and let the program find appropriate matches. The main advantage of these “string searches” is that they are easy.

The main disadvantage with string searches, however, is that the search engine cannot understand the meaning of the words or strings. Instead, the computer merely looks for a letter-by-letter, literal match for each word used. Consider the following sentence:

This sentence does not contain any information about biology, money, or foods like butter and milk, and certainly is not about automobile pictures, airline fares, layer jokes, opera singers, or library books.

While the above is a proper sentence, it would confuse string-matching programs because of the context of each word in the sentence. Entering this sentence into a string search would result in a list of diverse topics such as money, automobiles, jokes, opera, or law.

Rocking the Internet

Suppose a person was interested in finding web pages about “rock music.” With a simple string search, this will not be effective because the computer will locate any pages with the term “rock” or “music.” String searches will yield pages about other forms of music (i.e. classical), and pages about geology.

Because a computer has no intelligence, search engines do not recognize common phrases. String searches result in each word being treated as an independent search term.

Advanced Search Techniques

Because string searches cannot understand the context of the terms used in the keyword(s), they can give confusing results. Suppose you needed some information on John F. Kennedy.

If you just did a string search for JFK, you would get results that included buildings, monuments, and organizations with his name in them.

Boolean logic allows users to get more controlled search results by introducing three possibilities:

  1. Find this term AND that term

  2. Find this term OR that term

  3. Find this term NOT that term.

Instead of just searching for JFK, you might try JFK AND Massachusetts, or JFK AND Senator AND President. Each time the word “AND” appears, the number of responses that the search engine will generate will be limited. (Note: some search engines by default assume that you want the word “AND” when running multiple word searches.)

To broaden a search, use the Boolean operator OR. For example, using JFK OR Onassis will find “hits” for either of Jackie Kennedy-Onassis’ famous husbands.
To exclude some types of information from a search, use the Boolean operator NOT. For example, Jackie AND Kennedy NOT Onassis will result in hits about JFK, his wife Jackie, and exclude information about her remarriage to Aristotle Onassis.

The real value of Boolean logic comes from using these statements together. When more than one operator is used, the computer interprets them from left to right, unless they are grouped in parentheses.
For example, to find information about Jackie Kennedy Onassis before she remarried, try using (Jackie OR Jacqueline) AND (Bouvier OR Kennedy) NOT Onassis.

The concepts of Boolean logic are the same for all search engines. Different programs, however, may have their own versions (or “Syntax”) for these commands. Be sure to check the Help section of a search engine to be sure how to express Boolean operators.

Sometimes, the best keyword is a phrase instead of individual words. To indicate to a search engine that you want a literal match for a set of words as opposed to any web site that contains these words, place the phrase in quotes.

For example, a search for “John F. Kennedy” will only yield results for web pages that contain these exact combinations of this phrase in that exact order. Even this search might not be specific enough. In this case, it would probably be even better to search for “President John Fitzgerald Kennedy.”

The Good News

Fortunately, most search tools today have HELP features and "advanced search" dialog boxes to help guide users through the process of successfully locating information.  Be sure to take a look at the search options and help sections of the Websites you use - a little bit of reading or review can save a lot of time!  The world's most popular search engine, Google, has an easy to use "Advanced Search" link.  Virtually all the other search engines have this too.

If you are used to just using simple keyword searches, perhaps these tips seem a bit intimidating. Like anything, with practice, they become easy.
Scrolling through screen after screen of web sites that do not contain the information you desire is a drag and a waste of valuable time. Learning to conduct more precise searches with various search engines will give web surfers greater freedom and more time to explore the vast resources of the Internet.

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Getting the Most from
the World Wide Web

The World-Wide-Web contains a vast array of information resources and services. Used properly, the www is a student’s best friend. Up-to-date information on the web can be found quickly.
A wide array of formats such as audio, video, and graphics are available. Just point-and-click and you can easily move to related websites.

Getting the most out of on-line research does have its challenges. It is easy to become overloaded by the Internet’s vastness and many sources are not checked for quality and accuracy.

While using search engines is easy, unless one carefully limits these searches, they return results that may overwhelm users or provide too much of the wrong type of information.

The www is also becoming more and more of an advertising vehicle. These advertisements can be annoying or distracting.

As a student, getting the most out of the web is important. After all, time spent endlessly surfing is time that is not actually producing an assignment.

Research and the Open Web

Most of us are familiar with the parts of the Internet that anyone can freely access -

While many students immediately turn to the www to start the research process, a more thoughtful approach might make actually completing a project easier. Here are some suggestions to help you get the most out of your research:

Fact/Statistics/Technical Data. Locating accurate, specific pieces of information on the web can be a challenge. Often, it is easier and quicker to locate accurate, verifiable, useful data at a library or with source book. Try looking at Research-It!

Reference Lists. Instead of just surfing the net, try locating sources with your library’s online catalog. Identifying useful journal articles is easily done with topic indexes that are frequently posted on libraries’ home pages.

Background Research. Properly used, Search engines work great for locating a wide variety of background information on almost any topic. Just be sure to review each site for content quality.

Book Citations. Library online catalogs, Amazon (, and Barnes and Noble ( provide information to properly and completely cite sources.

Current Events. Many new sources post news free. Check the New York Times ( or Google News (tab at or

General Biographical Information. Some traditional, verifiable, and widely accepted print biographical resources, such as Current Biography, are available for subscribers online. Check to see if your local library has access to them.

Graphics. Many pictures, graphs, and tables are available online. Search engines can help locate them. Just beware, they may not copy or print as clearly as you would like.

Demographic Data. Many states and communities post this type of information, though always check for accuracy. A librarian can help you get the best and most accurate information.

Company Information. The best sources are subscription services such as Lexis-Nexis and They are not free; check your local library.

Maps. Many good sites are available on the web. Verify that maps you use are up-to-date.

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The Hidden Web

Many people are surprised to learn that Internet search engines do not provide comprehensive coverage of the web. Parts of the web are inaccessible using traditional web search tools. This is referred to as the “invisible” or “deep” web.

No search engine knows every page on the web – let alone the invisible web. The web grows and changes far too quickly for anyone to find every new page.
Pages without links cannot be found because the software that searches the Internet, called “crawlers” can’t follow links to find them.

Search engines do not have to list pages that are on the web. For business and editorial reasons, they may refuse to include some sites in their searches. Some webmasters actually request that search engines do not index their pages.

Also, most search engines are designed to index text and are not able to process non-text information. Pages that consist primarily of audio, images, or video are typically “invisible.”

Typically, search engines are not able to handle some types of formats including: PDF (Google excepted), Flash, Shockwave, Executables, and compressed files. Because these files are not made up of HTML text, they are difficult to index.

Much useful information on the web is stored in databases – these present problems for search engines because each database has its own design of data structure and search tools.

Even if a search engine can find the gateway page to a database, the tools that each database used to retrieve data prevents search engines access to the database. Web-accessible databases make up the largest part of the invisible web.

Why Use the Invisible Web?

Since most of us can access many different types of information on the web using general-purpose search engines, why bother with the invisible web?

Invisible web resources are usually more specialized and content oriented. Researchers are looking to satisfy information needs in a timely fashion. Speed and accuracy often represent a conflict.

Because of their need to appeal to a wide audience, general-purpose search engines might not represent an adequate compromise between conciseness of information and timeliness. Invisible resources, however, are specifically set up for specialized needs.

Advantages of invisible web sources include:

bulletSpecialized content focus means results are more comprehensive.
bulletSpecialized search interfaces mean more control over search input and output.
bulletMore relevant results.
bulletInstitutions or organizations that post specialized “invisible” web sites often can legitimately claim on being authorities on their areas of expertise.
bulletBecause of their specialization, invisible web resources might be the only source of some types of on-line information.

When to Use the Invisible Web?

So now that you understand the difference between the visible and invisible web, how does one decide which will result in the best information?

In general, let the following serve as guides:

bulletWhen you are familiar with a subject. If one already knows a great deal about a subject, they already likely know sources of information on the invisible web. Familiarity results in better knowledge of where to look and what keywords to use.
bulletWhen you are familiar with specific search tools. Most invisible web resources offer more sophisticated interfaces than general-purpose search engines. Restricting searches with advanced search functions makes it easier to locate specific information.
bulletWhen you need precise answers. General-purpose search engines can return hundreds or even thousands of results for each inquiry. Most invisible resources provide locate specific and precise information more concisely.
bulletWhen you need exhaustive, authoritative answers. The web is too large and complex for general-purpose search engines to provide in-depth, authoritative results. Some key sites will be overlooked. The invisible web is less likely to do so.
bulletWhen current information is desired. Due to the fact that general-purpose search engines are not “real-time” searches, invisible web resources are often more up-to-date.
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Keeping Current

Like the entire Internet, the invisible web is changing all the time. A number of on-line newsletters cover these resources. Here are some good ones:

bullet Academic Info.  Online subject directory of over 25,000 hand-picked educational resources for high school and college students as well as a directory of online degree programs and admissions test preparation resources (SAT, GRE, LSAT, MCAT, GMAT, USMLE, TOEFL).
bulletFree Pint.  This e-mail newsletter helps web users to find reliable sites and search the web more efficiently. Concisely written for people that do not have time to endless “point-and-click,” each issue includes a “Tips and Techniques” section where pros share their best researching strategies and share their favorite web sites.
bullet Infomine.  A virtual library of Internet resources relevant to faculty, students, and research staff at the university level. It contains useful Internet resources such as databases, electronic journals, electronic books, bulletin boards, mailing lists, online library card catalogs, articles, directories of researchers, and many other types of information.
bullet Internet Resources Newsletter.  This site specializes in Internet awareness for academics, students, engineers, scientists, and social scientists.
bullet Those Dark Hiding Places:  The Invisible Web Revealed
bulletLibrarians’ Index to the Internet (LII).  A searchable directory of web resources that is kept by Carole Leita and more than 70 voluntary reference librarians. It is organized into useful categories and is extensively linked to cross-references.
bullet ResearchBuzz.  This site specializes in Internet research. It is updated daily and contains an extensive listing of quality reference tools. Creator Tara Calishain, author of many Internet research books offers in-depth analysis and reviews of various Internet resources.
bulletThe Scout Report.  The Scout Report is as a widely recognized “seal of approval” for quality websites. It is updated weekly and summarizes useful web resources.
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Searching:  Tips & Tricks

bullet Academic Search Premier (EBSCO) Tutorial
bullet Basic Search Strategy: The Ten Steps
bullet Bergen County Cooperative Reference System, NJ  Interesting search tool that combines sources. 
bullet Berkeley's Five-Step Search Strategy: Finding Information on the Internet: A Tutorial  This site contains some good handouts, including one on Search Engines that summarizes phrase searches, Boolean logic, truncation and other features of preferred search engines.
bullet Boolean Search Tutorial
bullet Boolean Searching on the Internet
bulletCal Poly Search Tutorial  This one is geared towards the polytechnic audience.

bullet Choose the Best Search for Your Information Need

bullet Creating a Search Strategy (University of Southern Carolina)

bullet Developing a Search Strategy

bullet Expert Keyword Searching (University of Illinois Urbana Champagne)

bulletExpert Web Search Tips

bullet Finding Information on the Internet:  A Tutorial
bullet Finding It Online: Web Search Strategies
bullet Four NETS for Better Searching
bullet How Internet Search Engines Work
bulletHow To Plan The Best Search Strategy
bullet How to Search for Internet Resources to Use in a Lesson
bullet How to Search the World Wide Web:  A Tutorial for Beginners and Non-Experts
bullet How to Use Search Engines (Kidzworld)
bullet INFOMINE Scholarly Internet Resource Collections
bullet Interactive Boolean Search Tutorial
bulletInternet Search Engines
bullet Internet Search Engines and Directories
bulletInternet Tutorials
bullet Learn the Net: The Interactive Search Engine Tutorial
bulletLibrary of Congress On-Line Help Pages
bulletLibrary of Congress Services for Researchers 
bulletLiving Internet  Comprehensive reference about the Internet
bulletNoodleTools An overview of designs, process, and outcomes for information literacy.
bullet Power Reporting (Columbia Journalism Review).  Thousands of free, on-line search tools, including links to tutorials and tips.  While targeted for reports, it will be useful to any researcher.
bullet Research Help
bulletResearch Strategy: A Tutorial
bullet Search Box Strategy
bulletSearch Engine Math  Covers Boolean searching and MORE!
bulletSearch Engine Showdown:  Learning About Searching
bulletSearch Engine Tutorial (Pandia)
bullet Search Engine Tutorials
bulletSearch Engine Watch:  Tips About Internet Search Engines & Search Engine Submission
bullet Search Strategies
bullet Search Strategies (Teacher tap)
bullet Search Strategies for Search Engines
bulletSearch Strategies for the Internet
bullet Search Tools
bulletSouthern Oregon University Internet Searching Tools.  This site includes inforamiton about search engines, evaluations, tutorials, and updating guides 
bulletTeaching Internet Research Skills
bulletToolkit for the Expert Web Searcher Wiki   From the American Library Association's Library and Information Technology Association.
bullet Web Research Guide
bulletWeb Search Tutorial:  11 Advanced Searching Tips
bullet Web searching:  A tutorial on Search Strategy and Syntax
bullet Web Searching, Sleuthing and Sifting
bullet Web Searching Tutorial

Great Research Online Resources

Ready Reference: Fact Finders,
Dictionaries, and Encyclopedias
bullet Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations
bullet Information Please (includes Sports, Entertainment, and Columbia Encyclopedia)
bulletMedical Dictionary
bulletMerriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary & Thesaurus
bulletMerck Manual of Diagnosis and Therapy (Medical)
bulletOld Farmer’s Almanac
bulletRoget’s Thesaurus

Biographical Information
bullet Biography Center
bulletBiographical Dictionary
bullet Infoplease Biography
bulletNobel Prize Winners

Directories: People, Places, and Addresses
bulletAT&T Any Who

Financial and Corporate Sources  (free, real-time access to SEC filings of more than 68,000 companies)
bulletBig Charts (Stock Charts, Screeners, Interactive Charting and Research Tools)
bullet CI: Corporate Information
bulletWall Street Journal
bulletYahoo Business News

Government, Legal, Statistical,
US and World Resources

bullet American Memory (Maps, Journals, Photos, Sound, and Videos on U.S. History)
bullet Country Studies:  Federal Research Division, Library of Congress
bulletFedStats:  One Stop Shopping for Federal Statistics
bulletFindlaw: Directory of Free Legal and Government Resources
bullet Foreign Government Resources on the Web
bulletGallup Opinion Polls
bulletGPO (U.S. Government Printing Office)
bullet InfoNation: U.N. Member Countries
bulletIRS: Tax Publications and Forms
bulletLibrary of Congress
bullet Meta-Index for U.S. Legal Research
bulletNOLO Legal Encyclopedia
bulletOccupational Outlook Handbook
bullet PAIS: Public Affairs Information Services
bulletThomas – U.S. Congress on the Internet
bulletU.S. Postal Service
bullet World Fact Book: CIA Country Information

Map Resources

bullet Boundaries of the United States and the Several States  An interesting animation that shows how the boundaries of the continental United states has changed over the years.
bullet Color Landform Atlas of the United States
bullet County and City Data Book http
bullet CTI Geo-Information Gateway
bullet Earth from Space
bullet Encyclopedia Britannica
bullet Finding Information for Geographical Information Systems
bullet Geographic Information Systems and Electronic Mapping
bullet Geographic Names Information Server
bullet GeoNet Names Server
bullet GeoStat: Geospatial and Statistical Data Center
bullet Get-A-Map
bullet Getty Thesaurus of Geographic Names
bullet GIS Data Depot
bullet Historical Atlas of the Twentieth Century
bullet Historical Mapping
bullet Internet Geographer
bullet Links to Historical Maps
bullet Kentridge High School Maps and Atlases
bullet Library of Congress Geography and Map Reading Room
bullet Living Earth
bullet MapBlast
bullet MapQuest
bullet More Links to Maps and Images
bullet National Atlas of the United States
bullet National Atlas
bullet National Geographic Biodiversity Atlas
bullet National Geographic Map-Machine
bullet National Geographic Online
bullet National Weather Service Homepage
bullet Northwestern Universities On-Line Maps
bullet Odden's Bookmarks
bullet Online Weather Almanac
bullet Online: U.S. Gazetteer
bullet Perry-Castaneda Map Collection
bullet Physical Geography Links
bullet The View from Space
bullet Urban Geography
bullet US Map Collections for All 50 States
bullet UT Austin List of Map Collections
bullet View from Space  Images from 430 km above 44°18'N 91°27'
bullet World Bank Students Page
bullet World Book Encyclopedia
bullet WWW Virtual Library: Maps
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