with Lorelle and Brent VanFossen

The Search is on – Using Search Engines

A search engine is software on the internet that searches web sites and collects information on the web site and stores it in a giant database. When you use a search engine, it is not actually searching the Internet for the information you want, it is merely going through its database to find what it has stored there. The information collected by the search engine for its database is information embedded inside the web page by the designer. Therefore the database is only as good as the information provided by the web page designer. This makes hunting for information difficult because you must get inside the minds of the web page designers to think of the keywords and descriptions they would use to describe their pages, NOT the words you think they should use.

For instance, if you are looking for cookie recipes in the United Kingdom, you may have a problem. Cookies, as they are known in the USA, are called biscuits in Britain. If you live in Britain and want to find biscuit recipes in the United States, you are going to get something totally different from what you expect. Familiarity with what you are looking for will get you the information you need faster than starting out totally ignorant, but I’ll offer you some tools to help even when you are.

Some search engines are updated daily, some weekly or even less. If timely information is critical to you, then check with the search engine on their main web page to find out their procedure. Usually this is not an issue unless you are looking for news reports and need the latest information on a subject. Some search engines specialize in particular subjects like medical web sites only and only scientific reports. Do a search for “search engines” and your topic title and see what might show up. Using a specialized search engine can streamline your search and get you access to web pages that might be missed by non-specialized search engines.

There are a lot of new articles and web pages on how to maximize your searching abilities. The University of Albany University Libraries has an excellent article on searching, especially if you are serious about your research, as does Berkley. Search on the Internet for the keywords: searching the internet, internet search, how to search the internet, how to search web pages, and searching web pages.

Search Engines

There are a variety of search engines on the Internet, and the list changes every day. Currently the most popular search engines are:

www.altavista.com also known as www.av.com

There are also search engines which will search other search engines. These are called “Meta-Search Engines”.



Another form of search engine is one that uses regular English to make your inquiries. These are called “Ask
Search Engines”. You type your request in the search box on these web sites and the site will help you process
your request by asking for more information and providing you with different categories to help you refine your


Search Directories

There are also a variety of Search Directories on the Internet. These are like Yellow Pages for the Internet. The subjects are categorized and you can scroll through and search the different categories and sub-categories to find what you are looking for. Sometimes they can be very time consuming, other times they help you get clear
about what you are really searching for. The largest search directory is DMOZ. Two favorites and unusual search directories we enjoy are www.goto.com and www.about.com. The web site, www.about.com, is a favorite as it is more than just a directory. The designers created more of an encyclopedia of information, with stories and articles on a wide range of subjects which lead you to web sites on www.about.com and outside of it.

For example, if you are interested in photography but not sure which area interests you, go to the photography section and see what catches your eye. Maybe nature subjects catch your eye and you check out the list of subjects. Suddenly “landscape photography” starts your heart pounding. Read through the articles and information on that subject and you will find tons of links taking you to more specific information.

Searching Software

There are several software packages available to help search the Internet. Two popular ones are www.copernic.com and www.webferret.com. Both offer free software and offer you the chance to get the full version with a small payment if you enjoy using it. Copernic is our favorite. We use it almost daily. The free version searches 20 or 30 search engines on average, and the paid full version searches over 60 search engines covering a wide range of topics from medical information, shopping, computer technical reviews and recommendations, religious information…the list is long.

The benefits of using search software is that it is easy to use. It does the work of searching a variety of search engines, increasing your chances of finding what you want, but also narrowing it down by eliminating the same web site listed over and over again, saving you time. Most allow refining your search to narrow down the resulting documents. Copernic allows you to select which web pages are of interest to you and downloads them so you can read them at your leisure offline.

Creative Searching

As mentioned, it takes a lot of creativity and often some free association thinking to come up with the right
words to find what you are looking for. Here are some tips to get you started:

1. Think of unique descriptive words: Are there words used only within that topic? If you are searching for birds, try ornithology, a fairly unique word. Are there any names or characteristics unique to your subject? Any special organizations, associations, and titles that might have information on what you are searching for? What about abbreviations or acronyms? Do any of the words belong in phrases? What about different spellings of the same word? British or American spellings?

2. Check the thesaurus for synonyms. Many times one word will have several meanings or synonyms. Have you tried different variations on a word or phrase?

3. Check the dictionary. Many times I find synonyms or phrases to help me find what I am looking for.

4. Think of related words or subjects. Sometimes the path to finding information is not a straight line. Think around your subject and try to find other ways of becoming an Internet detective.

Work the Layers of Searching

Many search engines offer the opportunity to narrow the search in a process called “refining”. After the initial search, the web page invites you to refine your search by searching “within your search results” to eliminate documents. Other search engines offer a link to “similar documents”. Check out these possibilities by going through different “layers” to get to the information you want.

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