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Search Searching Tips

Everyone knows there is great stuff on the web. But where is it? How do we find what we really want? Searching the web requires practice, caution and patience. Searching tools in this environment deliver a high level of irrelevant information. This workshop is designed to improve the quality of retrieval and provide tips and strategies to make searching the web a less frustrating and more efficient and fruitful experience.

There are different tools for finding information on the web. The most important are search engines and subject directories.

Remember that scholarly databases are not searchable on the free web.

Learn more about when to use which tool

Search Engines
Search engines collect web pages using software called "robots" or "crawlers". Search engines usually cover a bigger part of the web than subject directories do. It is good to use them when you are looking for information on a specific topic and you already know some keywords.

Meta Search Engines
Meta search engines allow you to use several search engines simultaneously. They pass your query to the search engines and give you back the result. The advantage is that you will have results of different search engines at one time which is helpful for a broad search. The disadvantage of meta search engines is that a complex search is not possible because of the different "search language" in each search engine.

Subject Directories
A subject directory is a selected list of web sites. These web sites have been organized by human beings. They start with main categories and are broken down into subcategories. It is good to use them if you do not yet have a precise idea of what you need. You can start with the broader topic and try to find valuable information inside a category. Another reason to use directories is for their selectivity and annotations describing content.

Your library subscribes to hundreds of databases in different subjects. These databases contain scholarly information such as articles, company information, patents and reference. They are essential if you are looking for an article on a special topic.

Other Library Resources
Not all valuable information can be found on the web. Your libraries offer many important print resources such as books, journals, magazines, encyclopedias, dictionaries and other reference books and publications in print.

Building your search strategy

Define your search terms
Think about possible search terms for your topic. The broader your term, the more hits you will get. So if you want to avoid that, try narrowing your search by using an exact term or multiple terms. Here are some possibilities to narrow your search:

  • If you are beginning your search and you are not sure about an appropriate term, use an encyclopedia, a dictionary or a thesaurus.
  • Look at sites that you have already found that are relevant for your topic for possible search terms.
  • Ask a librarian for help

Use synonyms and variants of your search term.
If you have identified a search term and used it for your search but you don't get satisfying results, try to think of similar words that describe your term. Maybe another keyword is more frequently used.

Check spelling
Check if you spelled your search terms in the right way. Some search engines will correct wrong spelling, but not all do so.

Advanced search techniques

Most search engines offer an advanced search option which allows you to use more features to improve your search.

Most search engines ignore stopwords such as "a" and "the."
Use a plus sign (+) before a word or phrase to indicate that it must be present in the result.
Use quotation marks to indicate a phrase, for example, "lord of the rings".
You can group your search terms using parentheses.

Boolean Logic
Use boolean operators to combine your search terms. You can either broaden or narrow your search.
The operator AND will narrow your search. Your search will show only results that include all your search terms.
The operator OR will broaden your search. Your results will show sites that include any of the search terms.
The operator NOT will narrow your search by eliminating a search term.

Field Search
You can limit your search results to a special part of the web site, for example to the title, the URL or the domain. To see which possibilities you have in a special search engine please check their web site for information.

Truncation and Wildcards
You can use truncation if you are not sure about the word ending or spelling. You have to enter the root of a word and the symbol for truncation at the end and the search engine will show results that include any ending of the word. The truncation symbol can vary from search engine to search engine. You will find information about that on the search engine site.
For example: child* will show child, children, childhood and so on.

Wildcards work in a similar way by substituting a single letter within a word. This can help you if you are unsure about the spelling of a word.
For example when you enter wom?n the result will show woman and women.