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Search Basics

The Internet's World Wide Web is a network of millions of computers around the world that talk to one another through the HyperText Transfer Protocol (HTTP). To help users "navigate" the World Wide Web, search engines such as AltaVista and Yahoo! monitor and index the Web's ever-expanding content pages.

This tutorial will introduce you to some of the most popular search engines, explain how they differ, and help you quickly find pertinent information.

How Search Engines Work

Many search engines scan the entire content of Web pages for keywords. AltaVista is this kind of search engine. Other search engines, such as Yahoo!, search only the titles and description of pages. Another popular method of categorizing and indexing Web pages is through meta-tags, which are suggested key words imbedded in the page by its developer suggesting categories that the page might fit into such as "fishing" or "deep sea fishing." The use of meta-tags helps expedite the indexing and searching processes.

The Basics of Searching

1. Subject Directories
Most search engines organize their indexed information in a subject directory. In a subject directory, searching occurs from a general category that uses the broadest terms. For example, instead of looking specifically for American Airlines, begin with a broader term such as "airlines" or "travel," and work through layers of information leading to the desired result. Oftentimes, this is a good way to start if you haven't yet decided on a specific topic.

2. Keywords

Boil your thoughts down to a few keywords representing the most essential aspects of what you are looking for. For example, if you are looking for the American Airlines Web page to check on arriving and or departing flights or to price an American Airlines' ticket, you could type in "American Airlines." Keyword searches are useful for finding specific information.

Simple word search: physics

A simple word search, such as one for the word "physics," is usually too general and will return hundreds of pages that may or may not be relevant to what you're looking for.

String search: "Albert Einstein"

A string search is more effective than a simple word search. A string is two or more words enclosed within quotation marks, and the search engine looks for exactly that phrase. The drawback with this type of searching is that it cannot discern among contexts. It may return quotations, jokes, physics pages, mathematics pages, fan pages, lecture outlines, and so on, many of which are probably irrelevant. To refine your searches and minimize the amount of extraneous information, a little Boolean logic goes a long way.

Boolean Searches

Boolean searches use AND, OR, and NOT to represent relationships among the terms. The term NEAR, although not a part of the Boolean system, can be used with some search engines.

AND (or + with no space after it) requires all terms to appear

atom AND physics

atom +physics

"Albert Einstein" AND "Theory of Relativity"

"Albert Einstein" +"Theory of Relativity"

OR retrieves either term

"Albert Einstein" OR "Theory of Relativity"

NOT (or - with no space after it) excludes terms

"Albert Einstein" NOT "Theory of Relativity"

"Albert Einstein" -"Theory of Relativity"

Refining Your Searches

Parentheses may be used to sequence operations and group words

(falcon OR eagle) AND ("bird watching")

By combining searches in parenthesis, you increase the probability that the search will result in usable information. In this case, watching falcons or eagles.

Search for one term near another.

"Edgar Allan Poe" NEAR mystery

This search hunts for occurrences of Edgar Allan Poe near the word mystery.

Search for Truncated Terms (or Wildcards).

In some search engines, such as AltaVista, a word stem can be entered into a search or search string. The unknown portion of the word is represented by an asterisk. For example, theat* will return pages that contain theater, theatre, and theatrical.

Use wildcards when spelling varies or when a variety of terms could result in useful information.

Some search engines will find the substring and return "rivers" for "river."

If spelling variations do not use the same stem, enter all variations: Khaddafi OR Quadafy OR Kaddafi OR Qadaffi...

Meta Search Engines

Meta search engines such as Metacrawler are often a good place to start a web search. A metasearch (meta = more comprehensive; transcending) requests data from several standard search engines simultaneously. These engines are good for general or beginning research, however they are not recommended for detailed or in-depth research. A metasearch engines does not allow you to take full advantage of the capabilities of the associated standard search engines, nor does it report the full results of any one engine, but a snap-shot of them all.


As with any research project, you should always check other sources for reliable, supplemental information. A good place to start is your local library. Librarians can get you started in the right direction and are full of resources and research advice.


[Index] - [Step Two] - [Step Three] - [Step Four]

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