It’s a good idea to get familiar with one or two search engines, and to use them whenever you need to search for information. Read the online help files, practice some of the suggested search techniques, and perhaps print out the list of available search options so that you have them with you when you are searching. This will help you feel more in control of your chosen search engine, and will enable you to carry out much more targeted searches.
Also, consider whether or not a search engine is the best tool for the job. There might be an internet subject gateway specialising in your subject area that could provide you with exactly the information you are looking for. For more on internet subject gateways, see Safari (http://www.open.ac.uk/safari/php_pages/s04t05p010000.php) or the information on your subject on the Library’s website (http://library.open.ac.uk/find/eresources/index.cfm)
Choose your search terms
Before you begin to search, think carefully about the words you are going to use to search (your ‘keywords’). Note them down, and then try to think of any alternative words that might be used to mean the same thing. For example, for ‘insomnia’, you could also use ‘sleep disorders’. If you are searching for something specific, try adding more keywords to limit your search. It is a good idea when using a search engine to use as many keywords as possible - think about what words you want to see in the websites you find, not necessarily what the subject is.
No search engine has indexed the entire web, and no two are the same. Different search engines will return different results for the same keyword searches. Use the search options that are available with your chosen search engine to limit your results to the most relevant resources. Look at the online help files to find out which options your search engine allows, and how you should use them e.g. you might be able to enter them directly into the search box, or the search engine might offer the option for you to select. Some common search options are listed below.
Use double quotation marks to enclose a phrase, e.g. “alternative medicine”. This will instruct a search engine to find web pages where your keywords occur together in exactly the order you have specified. This will limit your results, because you will only retrieve items where the words are next to each other. Otherwise, you will retrieve items where the words occur, but not necessarily together, so the sites may not be that relevant.
Some search engines will ‘and’ your words automatically. Focus your search by using a plus sign (+) to combine search terms. The sign will instruct a search engine to only return web pages that feature both keywords. Be sure to place the sign directly before your keyword or phrase without leaving a space, e.g. +brunel +“great eastern” will only return web pages where ‘Brunel’ and ‘Great Eastern’ appear somewhere in the text, though not necessarily together or in the order you have specified. If you enter brunel +“great eastern”, a search engine will return pages where one or both search terms appear, but pages featuring both terms will be ranked higher in your search results.
Broaden your search by using OR (in capital letters) to find synonyms, related words or alternative spellings, e.g. ireland OR eire.
Limit your search by using a minus sign (-) to exclude a concept, issue or person. Place the sign directly before the keyword or phrase you want to exclude without leaving a space. The search engine will return pages that do not feature the specified word, name or phrase, e.g. “pop art” -warhol. Be careful with this one, as this search would exclude a site offering a comparison of Warhol’s pop art with that of other artists, which might actually be quite useful.
Truncation allows you to search for different endings to a particular word e.g. teach, teach–ers, teach-ing. Some search engines will automatically search for different forms of your word, whereas others require you to add a character to the end of the word e.g. teach*
UK-only web pages
Some search and meta search engines are set by default to return links to web pages located only in the UK, though often an option to search worldwide is also available. Use the advance search options to restrict your search to a specific location.
Look at the ‘advanced’ search screen on a search engine if there is one. Advanced search options may include limiting results to those with your search words in a specific part of the site e.g. in the URL, title etc.
Things to remember
There is no right or wrong way to carry out an internet search.
Experiment by adding and taking away words and trying the different techniques.
Keep an eye on the number of hits so that you can see whether you are getting more or less information, and assess the relevance of the hits at the top of your list.
Know when to stop searching. Setting yourself a time limit is sometimes a good idea if you are pressed for time.
Use some of the tips above to reduce a large number of search results.
1. Let’s say you want to find out about villa holidays in Spain, Costa del Sol, using Google (http://www.google.co.uk)
Type: Spain villa rental into the search box. How many hits do you get?
Alternatively, go to the Advanced Search screen. In the ‘all these words’ box, type villa rental. In the ‘this exact wording or phrase’ box, type Costa del Sol – how many hits do you get now?
2. Let’s say you want to find out what David Cameron has been doing as leader of the conservative party, using AltaVista (http://uk.altavista.com/)
Type: David Cameron into the search box. How many hits do you get?
Now try quotes: “David Cameron MP” Alternatively, go to the Advanced Search Screen. In the ‘exact phrase’ box, enter "David Cameron MP" and in the ‘all of these words’ box enter “leader conservative”. Limit your results to the last year. How many hits do you get?
Information Literacy Toolkit