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Vol 17|No 4|March 2008
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for the Grail

Finding Good Information on the Net

By Jamie McKenzie
About author

This is an update of an article first published in 1998 at FNO.

No sense sending students and colleagues out to search the Net unless they possess a toolkit of powerful search strategies to speed them past Info-Glut and Info-Garbage to the information they need - reliable, cogent and pertinent.

Power Searching cuts past what David Shenk calls Data Smog.

Learn these ten strategies and you are on your way to information that is worth considering, pondering and saving. Converting such information into Insight requires a different set of strategies. Consider "Embracing Complexity" in the February 2008 issue of The Question Mark.

 1. Question and draw before you search  6. Browse before grazing
 2. Use only the best  7. Go to the source
 3. Learn the syntax  8. Be discrete & particular
 4. Learn the features  9. Cull your findings
 5. Start big and broad  10. Be playful

Search engines don't work well on the almost unlimited, often unstructured resources of the Internet, wrote J. Pemberton way back in 1996. Imagine what he might write today!

"Think of a search engine as a dog whistle. Blow it in a kennel and you'll just attract dogs. Blow it in a zoo, and you'll get a few dogs, plus many other creatures with good high frequency hearing: maybe some lions or tigers, hyenas, coyotes, timber wolves, perhaps a moose. . . . The point is this: the Internet is a zoo."

Jeffrey K. Pemberton's column in Online User magazine, May/June 1996.

1. Question and draw before you search

Think and draw before you plunge. Make a list of great questions.

Take advantage of mindware like Inspiration to create a cluster diagram with several dozen concepts, keywords and telling questions that will be powerfully instrumental later when executing your search.

In most cases, students will not have the precise, specialized vocabulary to form good searches, so they should read an introductory background article containing many of these terms and highlight them for searching. They should also consult a thesaurus to expand and enrich their word choices.


You ask your students to work as teams to propose a mix of laws and government programs that would serve to protect old growth forests while restoring the vitality of this nation's timber industry.

You send them to one particularly intriguing article to start them thinking.

You ask them to work in teams to create cluster diagrams listing as many pertinent concepts and keywords as possible.

One team's diagram looks something like this . . .

This process should help them to identify promising words to employ in their search. The more particular and specialized the terms, the better the results, generally speaking.

2. Use only the best

Pick the best search engine. Bookmark it. And make sure you use the Advanced Version when that makes good sense. But be aware that specialized search engines may be better for certain tasks as shown below.

In January of 2008, my favorite for most searching is Advanced Google.

Why? Advanced Google provides a half dozen tools to help target the search, allowing me to select particular domains such as .gov, date ranges, exact phrasing and quite a few other options. These work well for most searches I conduct, but when I need images or specialized data, I may turn elsewhere.

Do not rely upon the "search" buttons built into your browser. These lists create advertising revenue for the software companies and the placement of search engines is a function of revenue rather than value.

How do you pick a good one?

  • Consult a major listing and review such as:
  • Conduct your own evaluation based on criteria such as those offered below.

 Speed How quickly do pages open and how swiftly do results of searches appear? Some search engines are graphically (advertising) bloated.
 Boolean Capabilities Learning how to use logical operators such as AND, OR and NOT greatly enhances your searching. If the search engine doesn't support Boolean searching, don't waste your time. Fuzzy Logic usually produces fuzzy search results.
 Power Sorting & Searching Features The best search engines allow you to sort and sift findings by dates, type of page, type of domain (com vs. edu), etc.
 Interface Design Good search engines keep the search box front and center where you can enter words without scrolling about. How well are the items and choices laid out on the page? Can you find what you need when and where you need it? Do ads get in the way of your searching?
 Browsing Capabilities Can you look at more than 10 "hits" at a time? It is very helpful to quickly scan the first 100 hits. Is the description or annotation of each item sufficient to provide a basis for making a wise choice? Can you determine relevancy?
 Breadth & Depth of Database Some search engines and their spiders do a better job of collecting from the world's vast array of Web sites. Is larger better?
 Digital Logic Many search engines employ artificial intelligence and digital logic to determine relevancy, proximity and other issues which might help you find the best information. Do they explain the rules of their system or are they hidden? When Web sites and pages appear in the top 20, do they actually belong there?
 Reasonable Advertising Some search engines accept advertising which might offend. Do you care? If so, which seem OK to you?
 Useful Results The bottom line or essential question is "How useful are the results?" Do you find reliable and relevant information swiftly?

No matter which search engine you select, do not settle for the "simple search" version of any. You are sacrificing power and accuracy for ease of use. It's a bit like training wheels on a bike. Go for the Power Search or the Advanced Search and encourage your students to do the same. They offer features that will vastly improve your results when combined with the suggestion in this article.


3. Learn the syntax and entry rules

The more powerful the search engine, the more important the syntax - the rules governing how you enter your search query. Because few people stop to read and learn these rules, they end up with crude and clumsy searches.

For example, some search engines care about CAPITAL LETTERS and punctuation. Others ignore them both. If you search for Washington, D.C. with the following query, you may achieve no "hits" with one search engine and thousands with another . . .


Another example . . . when you want an exact phrase such as "old growth forest," some search engines require quotation marks around the words that belong together, while others do not care.

Another example . . . when you are conducting Boolean searches, some search engines require that you capitalize AND, OR and NOT. Failure to do so may convince your search engine to ignore these critical words.

You can usually find the syntax for any search engine in the Help pages. If not, you may want to look for an engine that explains its rules. Take a look at Google's Help pages and Search Help pages.

4. Learn the features

As Info-Glut has grown to be more and more of a problem, the search engines have competed fiercely to offer the best tools to support you in your sorting and sifting, and yet I have witnessed hundreds of folks ignoring these powerful extra tools and features.

While the Advanced Search version of Google offers powerful features, few seem to know that it even exists. Go to Advanced Search and test out all of its features, turning to Advanced Search Tips when helpful.

Few people take the time to systematically go through the list, the tutorial or the guide, so they are usually unaware that the features even exist. What they don't know, will not help them.

5. 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.

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

A specialized search engine such as Clusty provides us with sub categories related to our issue.

For "global warming" the following topics appear:

  • Climate change
  • Environmental
  • Earth
  • Greenhouse
  • Cause of global warming
  • Governments
  • Effects of global warming
  • Fight Global Warming
  • Consequences
  • Solutions To Global Warming

When students begin their research, it is unlikely they could produce such a list on their own, so Clusty proves extremely helpful in pointing out the dimensions of the issue.

Combining their Clusty with a mind mapping program like Inspiration™, students map out the territory into conceptual zones, each of which becomes a neighborhood worthy of more carefully focused exploration.

Grokker is another search engine that provides topics and subtopics related to the issue at hand. Compare how it handles global warming with the results you found with Clusty.

Ask.com provides the option of expanding or narrowing a search. Try global warming.

6. 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?

Try looking at the first 100 sites that turn up on Advanced Google for global warming.

7. Go to the Source (The Hidden Net)

Some of the best sites on the Internet are not indexed by the search engines. It pays to go to such Web sites and search them directly if they would be the leading source of information on a particular topic.

It turns out that because many public agencies and news media Web sites do not permit access (perhaps for security reasons) to the spiders of search engines, their contents often elude the search engine's efforts as well as our own search attempts.

After several years of looking for a good source of crime statistics using global search engines, I came to realize that I would have done better if I had started with the source . . . the Federal Bureau of Justice, a site which never showed up when I would use global search strategies. I also discovered, almost accidentally, that Money Magazine often provides better statistics on leading cities than most of the cities themselves because it publishes an annual rating of the top cities . . . Money Online: Best Places: Money ranks the 300 biggest places.

What is the best way to know what source or Web site to visit?

  • Make a list of organizations most likely to care enough about your question, issue or topic to gather and share information about it. Visit their Web sites and see what they have to offer.
  • Consult one or more of the printed Internet guides which often suggest the best sites for various subject areas such as Civil War Photographs (Library of Congress).
  • Take advantage of an index such as Yahoo Directory or Google Directory to see which sites offer information on a particular subject.

For a thorough discussion of the Hidden Internet, read "Finding the Deep Internet When You Need It."

8. Be discrete

After you have conducted several browsing searches, you may begin to focus your search more sharply by adding key words to your search in order to limit hits to pages distinctly relevant to your inquiry.

Careful selection and addition of key words which are discriminating, distinguishing and distinctive, puts the spotlight on just those discrete pages which match your interests. Your key words differentiate, separate and reserve only the best pages.

How different would your results be with each of the following phrases suggested by Grokker?

  • Human Activity
  • Species Extinctions
  • Methane CH4
  • Greenhouse Gases

The more you particularize your search, the better your results. Adding particulars and specifics excludes all pages which do not contain those items. The advantage is sharp focus. The danger is bypassing, missing or overlooking key data.

Sometimes it pays to alternate between narrowing and broadening. After zeroing in with some particulars, zoom back out and try some different particulars.

This may also be a good time to use wild cards, truncation, the logical operator "OR" and "exact phrase" syntax.

  • wild cards and truncation - allows you to place a symbol such as an asterisk (*) at the end of a word's root, so that your search will return all variants of that word and protect your from being too sharply in focus.
  • the logical operator "OR" makes it possible to search for a list of synonyms so pages will not be eliminated just because you have been a bit too particular.
  • "exact phrase" syntax is helpful when you know exactly what you want and you are sure how the words will appear.

9. Cull your findings

The most powerful strategy for culling your original findings is the exclusion of irrelevant terms.

As you browse the first 100 hits, look for patterns and groupings of irrelevant pages. In Advanced Google take advantage of "without the words" to enter the terms you want excluded.

If you are searching for the Pilgrims' Mayflower do you really want all the motels, hotels, insurance companies and moving companies? If not, try the following search . . .

Mayflower "without the words" motels hotels insurance moving

When using a search engine that employs Boolean Operators, AND NOT is the term that allows you to exclude certain terms. But few search engines still use these operators, preferring instead to employ a phrase like "without the words" (Google) or "and none of these words" (Altavista).

10. Be playful

Power Searching is often more successful when you listen to your intuition and take chances. If you enjoy word play, you will have good luck with the trial-and-error searching process which leads to good results. Listen to your hunches. Be a Sherlock Holmes. Don't be so analytical and logical that you cannot make intuitive leaps. Digital Logic is the attempt to find order in an erratic, chaotic and disorganized information landscape.

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