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.
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
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 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
AND (or + with no space after it) requires all terms to appear
atom AND 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
Some search engines will find the substring and return "rivers" for
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
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.
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