SEARCHING ON THE COMPUTER

 

OVERVIEW

The usually successful searcher finds searching fun and challenging while usually unsuccessful people find searching as much fun as getting a root canal – something necessary but not something to look forward to.  This paper discusses the search attitude and techniques, and so forth, of the successful searcher, and is based on many courses I’ve taken and computer experience over 15 years in the workplace prior to 2004.  

Search engines

Successful searchers use different search engines for different searches because some engines are for general usage; others are for a specific use such as music lyrics.  Search Engine Watch (SEW) -- www.searchenginewatch.com -- lists 100 or so major U. S. search engines.[1]  (An appendix lists some of these and others I found in a more general search.  The appendix shows an indication of the subject matter to be expected when using the engine.)

The purpose of this discussion is not to anoint any search engine as THE search engine to use.  SEW lists Google, Yahoo, and Ask (previously called Ask Jeeves; the search engine owner has recently changed) as their award winning engines as of April 2004 and contains descriptions of those engines in a few paragraphs. It also describes many others to be strongly considered. Similar lists for meta search engines – those using a number of search engines – as of  March 2005 appear on the same site mention Dogpile, Vivisimo, Kartoo, Mamma, and Surfwax as award winners and also describe others to be strongly considered.

Search Vs. Specific Web Site

 Why search the web when you already know a very good source for subject matter materials.   Searching the web produces sites with valid information and others with questionable or invalid information. Also, information from large data producers or those with large data bases to be searched are usually not covered by search engines,[2] and must be accessed directly and then by searching once on the website.

 For example, say you’re looking for information on caregivers support groups.  In the January meeting of this club, we had a presentation on http://www.seniornavigator.org.   Visit the site, and search on the site caregivers along with your zip code.  Then, point to the search now button and left click.

HOW TO SEARCH

BEFORE THE SEARCH

■ ATTITUDE

 The successful searcher believes “I will win”.  It is often a self-fulfilling prophesy. Why?  They think more into search terms and persevere more down the list of returned hits even though initial hits tried are not successful. 

 ■ ALLOW ENOUGH TIME

 A good search takes longer than the 10 minutes prior to a Redskins game or while the potatoes are cooking.  Good tea has to steep.  Allow a good extent of time, at least an hour or so, for the searching.

 ■ DON’T SEARCH FOR TOO LONG A TIME OR WHEN TIRED

 Mañana!! (Spanish for “there’s always tomorrow”).  A tired person is less likely to be a successful searcher.  When you search, you have to think of a proper search term, and you have to comb through the hits by double clicking links. It may be exhilarating at 3 P. M., but will it be at 3 A. M.?  Also, will you be as fresh after counting for an hour or two as you were 30 minutes into searching?

Each successful searcher has a different time limit for searching, but each will get away from their search session until later or tomorrow after their time limit for searching expires.  The fairly new science of ergonomics indicates that computers take a toll on the body. (Your eyes stare, not blink. Your fingers make the same motion with the mouse again and again.  ETC.) Therefore, the science encourages you to stretch, walk around, do something else, and so forth.  Also, you’d be surprised how a fresh outlook will help.  A new idea for a search term can even pop up in your mind in the interim.

■ THOUGHT

Research is the process of going up alleys to see if they are blind”, Marsten Bates, 1967, as quoted in Bare Bones, a document on searching at www.scb.edu/.  Also, there is an advertisement popular as I write this which says the good news is my search produced a million results; the bad news is my search produced a million results.

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To get more relevant hits when using a search engine, successful searchers use search terms rather than a single word.  Proper search terms are developed only after some thought.  Whether you use paper and pencil or a computer screen and keypad, good search terms are not developed in ten seconds.  A good search term will produce not only search terms relevant to the search term used but also relevant to the answer you’re searching for.

To come up with a proper search term first decide what answer you are searching for.  Then, ask yourself the five questions of searching: How? Who? What? Where? Why? Although all questions may not be used for a search term, these questions help the searcher to focus on the search.  The answers to those questions form the basis for good search terms.  Specific terms are usually better than general ones, as general ones tend to produce too many non-productive hits.

A search using SHOES will produce sneakers, deck shoes, dress shoes, high heels, etc. while RUNNING SHOES will narrow  the results of the search to the type of shoes of interest. Be aware, however, a search term such as COLDS may have to be reversed. Thus, the better search term may be COLD PREVENTION. See quotation marks below.

■ PERSEVERANCE

Successful searchers scan the hit list for reliable sites which may produce what you’re looking for (rather than read) as they scroll down the page.  They click on links that look promising (usually no more than about a third of each page).  They search each web site visited briefly to determine if they struck gold or gar’ bage.  If potentially gold, they investigate further going a little deeper on the site but only for only another minute or two, reevaluating all the time. If gar’ bage at first or even after a subsequent evaluation, they return to the list of hits and continue scanning through page 2 and maybe 3 of the hit list. Then, they try a new search term.

Scanning rather than reading means you will be able to go down the page and identify likely successful hits and eliminate unsuccessful hits quicker. Spending only a few minutes on each page reduces the chance that you spend a lot of time looking for hard to find hits.  Lastly, most search engines produce the most likely hits first.  Therefore, as you page through the hits, you are less and less likely to be successful.  

A technique increasing the chance to be successful when a site is clicked, is to use the search box on most sites (or use CTRL+F), type the search term, and press the ENTER key. A different technique is used when searching a PDF document, click on the binoculars, type the search term and press the ENTER key.  

For example, in the www.seniornavigator.org caregivers example given on page 1 when the list comes up use CTRL +F, type Alexandria and at the bottom of the screen point and click next, etc.

SEARCH TECHNIQUES

■ PROPER SPELLING

This does not seem important but it is.  Bad spelling can change even the best search term to the worst possible term.  An incorrectly spelled search term can only be successful if the owner of the search engine made the same spelling error in entering the web page in the database.  Hence, before a search term is used, make sure it is spelled correctly.  This is doubly necessary if you know spelling is a weakness of yours.

This said, however, be aware that some words are spelled differently in other places (color and colour), have two approved spellings (high jack or hijack), or are frequently misspelled (advice, advise).

■ QUOTATION MARKS

A two word search will produce results in three areas: the first word, the second word, and a combination of the first and second words.  This usually produces a lot of false hits.

Some search engines automatically assume Teapot dome (a political scandal during the Harding Administration), or other two words is a term rather than two words.  I know Google and Dogpile do this, but others might. Experiment!

If your search engine of choice does not automatically read two words as a term, use quotation marks. In using quotation marks you are limiting your search to a specific phrase in the database. This will limit the search to those documents in which the two words appear together. If this is too limiting, type the first word in the search term in quotes, then type NEAR, and lastly type the next word in quotes. NEAR should be in capitals. NEAR searches for the first word and the last word only if separated by 10 or less words.

■ USE OF AND/OR/AND NOT

The use of certain connection words can help narrow down a search.  “Hybrid Automobiles” AND Taxes; or “Executive Chair” AND NOT “Drafting” will greatly reduce the number of responses in which you are not interested while increasing the number of responses in which you are. Conversely, “COAT” OR “VEST” may appropriately do the reverse.

■ WORDS ALL SEARCH ENGINES IGNORE

All search engines ignore prepositions, conjunctions, or common verbs. There are about 600 of these ignored words, including: and, about, the, of, a, in, as, if, not, why, never, before, is and it.

■ WILDCARDS

Remember card games which permit wildcards?  Most search engines permit the use of wildcards also. Thus, UPDATE* produces potential hits with update, updates, and updated.  The wildcard is * -- the asterisk, over the 8 on the keyboard or * on the keypad.  Brightplanet, the web site referred to in a footnote on page 1, says that the use of wild cards increase coverage by 50%.

IGNORE INTERESTING BUT NOT ON POINT SIDE ISSUES

When anyone does a search they will find things interesting but not on point.  The successful searcher focuses on the search they are doing, and ignores side issues. If a side issue arises that looks interesting, jot it down for future investigation and stay on issue.

AFTER AN UNSUCCESSFUL SEARCH

■ USE MORE THAN ONE SEARCH ENGINE

A serious searcher should use multiple search services for important queries because different search services contain different databases.  A search for GASB 45 (an accounting rule on retiree health benefits) shows from 34 to 277,000 hits on 5 search engines.  The engine reporting 34 shows only the most relevant hits; while the 277,000 hits shows hits in the order of relevance.  Both are award winning engines.

That said, however, I doubt if many people use multiple services and if they do, they do so infrequently.  If you are really serious about a search, though, you should try more than one search engine. 

TABLE OF SOME SEARCH ENGINES AND LINKS TO SEARCH ENGINES

This table is based on my review of different sources including websites http://infotoday.mondosearch.com, http://www.westcairn.com and http://www.searchenginewatch.com; and a book Randolph Hock, “Web Search Engines”(Cyber Age Books: Medford, New Jersey, 2001).  Naturally, it is a sample of sites.

 

SEARCH ENGINE

URL

DESCRIPTION

Yahoo

http://www.yahoo.com

General search engine

Google

http://www.google.com

General search engine

Dogpile

http://www.dogpile.com

Meta search engine (uses a number of search engines)

Vivisimo

http://vivisimo.com

Another meta search engine

 

http://www.westcairn.com

Links to many sites including search engines of shopping and song lyrics.

 

http://www.bartleby.com

Search books of quotations and encyclopedias

Froogle

http://www.froogle.com

Comparison shopping site

My Simon

http://mysimon.com

Comparison shopping site

NexTag

http://www.nextag.com

 

Comparison shopping site. Unlike many other such sites, this site compares prices including tax and shipping charges.

Education world

http://education-world.com

Searches producing sites of interest to educators.  Lets the searcher input appropriate grade level.

 

http://discovery.homework.com

Homework and tutoring help

Travelocity

http://travelocity.com

Searches airlines, hotels, and rental car prices.

Hawaiian Rainbow

http://hawaiianrainbow.com

Directory to over 4000 Hawaiian websites.

[1] There is confusion about whether a search engine searches the web or a database.  The weight of the evidence to me is definitely slanted toward database built by the owner of the search engine.  The database is then searched when prompted by a user.  The results are then presented in a hit list with a brief description and a link to the appropriate web site addresses.

[2] Michael K. Bergman, Guide to effective searching of the internet—2005, p. 53. See www.brightplanet/pdf/searchtutorial.pdf.  This is a very detailed guide but is recommended for those who want to do more reading on this matter.