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Tips for Using Web Search Engines

Tips for using web search engines

Some suggested search engines  |  Evaluating websites: selecting the best sources


Web search engines are databases containing records for webpages. Different search engines contain different total numbers of webpages and different pages: no one search engine covers the entire Web. Search software also varies between them, so it is often useful to check the "help" page for your specific search engine to find out how to conduct a more effective search.

A search engine record looks something like this (underlined components would be links on an actual retrieved website record):

(Title of webpage:) Crater Lake National Park (National Park Service)
(Header or initial text from webpage:) Crater Lake National Park Located in Crater Lake, OR. ... Winter at Crater Lake (NPS Photo)
(Subject descriptors:) Description: Brief NPS informational page
Category: Regional > North America > ... > National Parks and Monuments > Crater Lake NP
(URL/Web address:) www.nps.gov/crla/ - 12k - Cached -
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(Links to related pages:) Similar pages
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You can search a Web search engine by keyword, by URL or domain (.edu, .gov, .org, etc.), and often you can limit your retrieval by language or to pages having specific file types (images, audio or videos, ftp, etc.).

Here are some tips for using Web search engines:

* Become familiar with the advanced searching techniques for one or two major search engines. Use one or two for primary searching, but remember to try others if you are having difficulty finding a good website for your research topic. You will retrieve different websites using different search engines.

* Learn how to do truncation and phrase searching in your primary search engine(s). Truncation, or wildcarding, allows you to search on the root of a word and retrieve all variant endings. For example, a search on keyword pediatric*, in the Alta Vista search engine, will allow you to retrieve records for webpages with the words pediatric, pediatrics, and pediatricians. A search on key phrase "indoor air quality" (in quotes) allows a search on that exact phrase, not just as three separate keywords. Different search engines have different truncation symbols and different protocols for phrase searching so check the help screens to ensure a more effective search.

*Take advantage of the Boolean search capabilities offered by some search engines. Boolean operators and, or, and not allow you to logically combine keywords for more accurate retrieval. A search on cougars or mountain lions or pumas will retrieve only websites with any one or two or all of the three terms. A search on cougars and sheep will retrieve websites with both cougars and sheep. A search on cougars not wsu will retrieve websites with the term cougars, but not about the Washington State University Cougars football team. Different search engines have different rules for using Boolean operators. For example, some require that you capitalize AND, OR, or NOT. Check the help screens to ensure a more effective search.

* Consider using a smaller, more specialized search engine, or links from an authoritative website. Websites from professional associations or special interest organizations often have a page with links to "related sites" or "resources" for that discipline.

* If you are doing research for an academic assignment, consider also using a Web-based catalog database, for finding books, or an index database, for finding articles. Currently, most professional and technical literature, including journal articles, is not available for free on the Web. Also, the information published in books, journals and conference papers has been screened for quality. This quality control is generally not a feature of Web search engines.