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Searching for the Grail?

4. Start big and broad (then narrow cautiously)

Effective searching requires a balance between a broad reach and a careful aim. The searcher must cast a net far enough to capture the most important information, and then, once safely contained, must cull the results so that only the best information remains.

Our first search for "Snake River" produces some 3,040,000 hits with Google, many of which are irrelevant. When we scan the first 50 of these hits we begin to see words that might help us to refine our search.

It pays to make a list of promising words such as the following:

  • conflict
  • salmon preservation and restoration
  • campaign
  • retire dams
  • endangered species
  • Pacific salmon
  • fisheries
  • utilities

Too many searchers narrow their search prematurely, thereby condemning themselves to the boundaries and ideas of their prior knowledge.

This is the time to map out the territory into conceptual zones, each of which becomes a neighborhood worthy of more carefully focused exploration.

If we have little prior knowledge of "endangered species" we could not know what we do not know and could not plan or pose the questions we ought to be exploring. We should try to learn some before we focus narrowly and sharply.

Our search on Google can provide us with a much richer appreciation of the subtopics associated with endangered species and delivers a list of key words which will direct the more pointed search process.

 Workshop Activity:

1. Identify a search phrase from your cluster diagram and question which is likely to produce a huge mountain of "hits."

2. Using that broad search phrase, conduct a search with Google's Advanced Search and scan the results for promising key words and concepts.

3) Revise your original cluster diagram to reflect the new concepts and categories you have found.

4) Try adding some of these new words to your original search. How do the top results change?



5. Browse before grazing

Early search efforts are meant to provide an overview of the information landscape relevant to the investigation at hand, much like petroleum prospectors flying over a region and noting the terrain, seeking convergence (a combination of geological elements in one location which hints at the presence of oil).

While it is tempting to start right off opening pages and looking for information, it is more effective to wait until you have scanned the brief descriptions most search engines provide for the hits. Scanning the top 100 hits provides a basis for revising the original search to accomplish two goals:

  1. exclude whole categories of irrelevant sites
  2. target more directly those pages and sites most likely to deliver a great return

Think of the first search as a pot-luck supper with a 400 foot long table. Would you step up to the very first dish and start heaping food onto your plate? Or would you browse and graze before making choices?

 Workshop Activity:

Go to Google's Advanced Search and try searching for one of your major concepts while requesting the maximum number of hits [100). Instead of opening them right away, browse through the entire 100 looking for irrelevant sites.

Make a list of irrelevant concepts and categories which you could use to weed or cull your findings. Practice on culling will be provided during the 9th activity - Cull your findings.


Next search strategies


 Credits: Icons are from Jay Boersma.
Other drawings, photographs and graphics are by Jamie McKenzie.

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