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Top Ten Advanced Internet Search Tips

  1. The more you know about Boolean logic, the easier it is to use search engines.
    "Dogs AND cats" means "find me every document that includes references to both dogs and cats." If there are 7 documents, but only 3 refer to BOTH dogs and cats, your search will return these 3 items. "Dogs OR cats" means "find me every document that EITHER has the term 'dogs' OR has the term 'cats.'" Of those 7 documents, if 4 refer only to dogs and 3 refer only to cats, your search will return 7 hits (4 + 3).
  2. For searching by topic, use book-length concepts.
    Particularly in smaller catalogs, it is often useful to construct your search terms as if they were the title of a book, magazine article or videotape. A search for "dog grooming" or even "pets" may retrieve more useful sites than "cocker spaniel"; "Chinese Cooking" will be better than "steamed dumplings." This approach will also help you maintain a sense of orientation in your searching through retrieving links to top-level sites where you can then search for items in context.
  3. To zero in on a specific item, use the term itself.
    If, on the other hand, you are looking for a person, place or thing--a hotel, for example--using that specific term will often be most effective. Try this in a catalog such as Yahoo--look for your alma mater, or a hotel you recently stayed at.
  4. Find out what level the search engine or catalog indexes.
    Some search engines, such as Alta Vista, index every single document on a site. Other search engines and all catalogs seek and index top-level documents. If you are looking for an extremely obscure document with a distinctive term, and you remember nothing else about it, Alta Vista could really shine at this search, particularly if you're willing to invest the effort to learn how to construct advanced searches. If you're looking for the Sheraton Hotel or some new resources on bioremediation, you may want to start with Yahoo or Excite.
  5. To understand your search results better, find out what the search engine's defaults are.
    Are terms strung together without Boolean operators--"dogs cats"--treated as if they are connected with ORs ("dogs OR cats")? Or does the search engine string these together as "dogs AND cats?" Or is that considered a phrase, as in "United States?"
  6. Find out how the search engine indexes documents and returns "hits."
    Is it searching the entire document, the first paragraph, the URL, the title...? Does it have stopwords (words it won't search for, usually because they occur very frequently, such as articles and prepositions)? Or would a search for "The Silence of the Lambs" search for two words or five?
  7. Find out how to customize a search in that particular tool.
    How are date ranges constructed? What about truncation or wildcarding? Exact-phrase searches can be extremely precise, as well (many, but not all, search engines support exact phrases with quotation marks, as in "'Silence of the Lambs'").
  8. Some tools are only worth knowing well.
    Alta Vista, for example, is an expert's tool, capable of very powerful retrievals. A simple keyword search in Alta Vista (which uses an implied "or," as in "dogs cats" equals "dogs or cats"), really isn't worth the effort--you might as well use Yahoo or Excite.
  9. Develop a strong "plan B."
    Become at least superficially familiar with a handful of relatively unknown or specialty search engines and catalogs. Then at Internet Rush Hour you will always have a back-door to search.
  10. Maximize your bookmarks.
    When you begin gathering many, many URLs, consider some of the commercial tools to enhance and maintain your bookmarks. These are advertised on the Internet (of course) and in magazines such as PC and Internet World. Or take a class or two, and build your own search engine or catalog


(reprinted from Tipsheet #B7 prepared by EPA Region 2 Library)