Search Engines: A Quick Tips Guide to Successful Reference Searches on the Internet
You may feel like you know everything there is to know about surfing the web for answers, however when working in a learning environment such as the public library, it is important to be prompt and at the same time retrieve the most accurate information possible.
Getting Started: The Basics
A search engine allows users to input keywords into its system that are then matched to words within the search engines’ database which turns out in the form of websites and other data (such as pdfs, powerpoint slides, etc.). There are three parts to a search engine that lets it do what it does:
The automated software or what is known as the spider, bot or crawler constantly searches through several web pages covering subjects that are commonly accessed to include in the database for potential future searches.
The index analyzes what the spider has retrieved from the web pages then the index makes its own file of keywords and other data to save.
When a search is conducted the search engine software takes the information that a user asks it return an answer for and checks it against the information the index has saved. After the index is checked, a list of the best URLs is returned for the user to choose from.
Breaking it down: Determining the Best Way to Use Search Engines
Now that there is a general understanding of how search engines work, it is best to figure out how we can use this information to help patrons. Often using the Internet is the swiftest reference tool we have available to us. Using it effectively will guarantee the best outcome for the patron.
Things You Should Know About Using Search Engines
Search engines are best used when:
- You are looking for a quick fact
- For general exploration because you are unfamiliar with a subject
- The most up-to-date information on a subject
- Topic has several parts to it
- You want to narrow your search
Some Basic Search Skills
- Make sure that you are clear on the question that is being asked of you by the patron
- Get a good grasp of the subject so that you can decide where you want to start your search
- For example, if a patron asks about a player’s statistics on the Baltimore Raven team, a good place to start would be the official Baltimore Raven’s website
- Think of words, phrases or even questions that will yield the best results
- Be specific! If you are looking for a type of document or domain, learn the extensions to what you are looking for and enter them in searches as well
- For example: pdf, .exe, .doc, .gov, .edu, .tv…and so on
Narrowing or Broadening Your Search
Boolean Logic was created by George Boole, an English mathematician. Entering the following logic symbols will effectively help you improve your search by making your results smaller of larger:
AND: “clouds AND rain” – gives you results for everything
OR: “clouds OR rain” – gives you results for at least one of terms
NOT: “clouds NOT rain – will exclude a term
+: “clouds + rain” – at least both these words must be included in search
-: “clouds + rain -meteorology – excludes word you want to “subtract” from search
“ “: ‘”national weather service”+clouds’ – searches for phrase
( ): (clouds AND rain) AND NOT meteorology – gives results for complex search strings
Another Good Tip
Different search engines process Boolean logic differently and return varying results (with or without the use of logic tools) so it is important to familiarize yourself with multiple search engines to learn where to retrieve the best answers.
Another tool that can be used is truncation (denoted by an asterisk “*” plus the word or words you are searching for), which allows you to search on the root of a word and retrieve all variant endings. This is often used when a subject is typically board and can benefit from a search at returns multiple results. For instance, truncating the word bake* could return results on baked, bakes, baking, bake shops, bake sales and so on.
Other Alternatives: Directories, Meta Searches and Library Databases
In addition to search engines, utilizing directories or meta search engines may also prove useful. Directories offer a more limited amount of information but with a higher quality of results. They are often edited by people (sometimes experts on the subject matter) who organize, categorize and write the information found in the directory. The information found here may include “hidden information” or information that is not easily found when doing a general search.
Meta search engines search several search engine databases all at one time. The returns are usually more limited that a general search, only yielding ten to fifty results at a time. Boolean operators are also not always processed correctly when using a meta search.
Another good resource to consider when answering reference questions via the Internet is the Pratt Library’s very own databases. These databases may not have results pulled from search engines but what they offer may be of a superior to a general search. Their use is especially good for patrons with school projects or in-depth research. Pratt’s databases include access to full-text articles from periodicals or magazines as well as newspapers, encyclopedias and other authoritative texts. All of the databases offered by the Pratt Library are available at www.prattlibrary.org. On the homepage, find the tab entitled “Find Answers” then go to “Online Database which will link to the subject guide.
Tying It All Together: The Final Steps to Retrieving Information
Now that you have successfully learned how to approach search engines for reference on the Internet, the question remains, what do you do with all the results? To ensure that you are handing over the best information to the patron, you must evaluate a few of the web pages with the following criteria:
- Who is the author?
- What are their credentials?
- What type of organization is it?
- Who sponsors the site
- Currency and Site Maintenance
- When was the page created and last modified?
- Is there evidence that the content has been recently updated?
- Do the links work?
- Point of View
- What is the site’s purpose?
- What is the bias?
- Who is the intended audience?
- What type of language is used?
- Are there bibliographic citations or links?
- Are there errors such as misspellings or untrue statements?
- Design and Structure
- Is it easy to navigate?
- What is the set up of the page: published articles, personal page, etc.?
- Relative Value
- What is the value to the site’s information compared to other sources
- Does the site contribute to original knowledge or a unique point-of-view?
- Is the site more useful that other sites or web pages?
Once you have quickly made your assessment, you can be confident that you have provided quality reference service.
Popular Search Engines
Popular Meta Search Engines
Search for Images
- Google Images
- Yahoo! Images
- Wikimedia Commons – images often in the public domain or part of GNU Free Documentation License, or other licenses that allow for ease of access.
- Recommended Search Engines from the University of California-Berkeley Library
Focuses on comparing features of three major search engines.
- How Internet Search Engines Work
From How Stuff Works