Searching and Sleuthing: Search Tools
More about Searching and Searching Engines
What's New with Search Engines
Keeping Current with Web-Based Resources
Web Searching Main
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Searching, Sleuthing and Sifting
What is the Web? Why Canít I find
what I want?
What is the World Wide Web?
The Internet is an inter-connected network of networks, (in other words,
a web of webs); the World Wide Web is the "virtual" web linking these networks.
Each machine on these networks has a unique "address" from which it can
request and receive information. A web "browser" is a client program that
requests information from other computers which temporarily function as
"servers," sending the requested information.
Most web browsers now are "GUI's" (goo-eys), that is, a graphical user
interface. The web has existed for decades, but its exponential growth
and use began in 1995 when graphical web browsers became more popular (the
interest spurred development in more user-friendly products).
An example of a web browser that is a character client, which in other
words, is *not* graphically based, is "Lynx." Reasons why you might use
a character client include:
speed -- without graphics, files load more quickly because they
are smaller (graphics files are typically large and take longer to load
into the browser)
reliability -- people with older computers/modems may have difficulty
receiving the large amounts of data retrieved by graphical browsers or
make "surfing" more like "sludging" through the Web
readability -- users who are assisted by reading devices (such as
the blind) often encounter problems reading pages with graphics/frames
The Internet's been around for decades. Why is the
Web so popular now?
The history of the Internet has been well documented by others and is beyond
the scope of our discussion here; for our purposes, it is sufficient
to observe that the Internet was originally conceived of as a communications
system to be used in a national emergency. Researchers from large institutions
then began to exploit its capabilities to transport data (way back in the
1960's and 1970's). It wasn't until the early 1990's however, that the
Internet became a mass communication vehicle. By 1995, use of the Web became
popular. Why the sudden popularity of the Web?
For a start, more of us are using relatively inexpensive personal computers
with powerful processing capabilities. Increasingly faster and more reliable
Internet connections have made the use of graphics and other media, which
require a lot of bandwidth, practical for the "rest of us folks." This
was not true in the past when only large companies or research organizations
could afford the equipment required to transport and manipulate the large
volumes of data reliably. Also, even if a "residential" (as opposed to
business) user purchased a larger capacity modem, frequently it was hard
to find an Internet service provider that would allow you to use it to
its full capacity. Fortunately now, most of this is ancient history (or
at least 2 years ago!).
Commercial developers noticed the potential of the web as a communications
and marketing tool when graphical web browsers broke onto the Internet
scene (Mosaic, developed at the University of Minnesota was the first popular
web browser) making the Internet, and specifically the Web, "user friendly."
Web browsers such as Netscape Explorer became an immediate "hit" with users
frustrated at the Unix technospeak often required previously to browse
the web, and when this began to happen, people began to develop content,
that is, something to look at! The more sites that were developed, the
more popular the browser became as an interface for the web, which spurred
more web use, more web development etc. etc. Now graphical web browsers
are powerful, easy and fun to use and incorporate many "extra" features
such as news and mail readers.
Also, the nature of the Web itself invites user interaction; web sites
are composed of hypertext documents which means they are linked to one
another. The user can choose his/her own path by selecting predefined "links"
-- which may be phrases, images or parts of images which have been
designated as links which will take you to another page, a video clip,
a track of music or other audio output, images or even connect you to a
live video cam! Since hypertext documents are not organized in an arrangement
which requires the user to access the pages sequentially, users really
like the ability to choose what they will see next and the chance to interact
with the site contents.
Who "polices" the Internet?
No one "owns" the Internet - it is not a finite, discrete physical
entity (the "web" consists of virtual connections). People and organizations
own computers and web pages, and they control the content of web sites.
It is important to note that no one agency or group of agencies is responsible
for the monitoring the content of the web. This has good and bad
aspects; it is easy to "publish" on the web and there is no effective censorship,
but anyone can publish anything (and sometimes material is offensive
for a variety of reasons).
The web is a self-publishing medium, that is, anyone with a computer,
a modem and a link to the Internet can produce a web page and because
anyone can mount a web site, users must carefully evaluate
the information they find. For a start, consider:
Who is publishing the site and why? (consider bias/point of view/authority)
When was the site last updated? (depending on the subject, this may or
may not be important)
How relevant is it to your need?
(Don't' panic if you are lost! In Lesson 2a,
we will be discussing how to evaluate web sites in greater depth...)
What's out there?
You can almost always find a web site or page with some information on
your topic, a service that you need, software, images etc. However, be
careful not to assume the information is accurate or comprehensive (evaluate
what you find!). Rather than go into a long discussion of the rapidly increasing
content available on the Web (it would be easier almost to describe what
you can not find on the Web!), here's a brief list of some
of the its strengths (we'll be exploring these throughout the course):
What the web is not:
consumer information on topics such as health, business (stock quotes)
entertainment and edutainment (educational entertainment)
government information (including statistics)
recent research (research not yet published in journals)
online communities (for example, for web enthusiasts or working mothers)
news and current events
comprehensive and all-inclusive in coverage
a substitute for peer-reviewed articles for in-depth research
always reliable (the information and the technology underlying the web
censored (children especially need guidance!)
Why canít I find what I want?
Glad you asked! There is an assortment of reasons that you may not be able
to find what you want, and only a few of these have to do with you or the
way in which you are searching. Remember when reviewing this list that
our goal is a general awareness of potential problems and not mastery
(it's a long list!). Underneath a potential problem I've suggested
a quick fix which may help.
BEYOND YOUR CONTROL...
incorrect spelling/typo (you'll find web pages with
the same typo!)
one of the most common problems and easy to remedy
(e.g. searching for "stacks" instead of "stocks")
poorly described or conceptualized topic
know what you are looking for, and if this is not possible, know
what you are *not* looking for (eliminate if necessary)
(e.g. searching for "something on tobacco" instead of "tobacco and
query is too general
narrow your focus
(e.g. searching for "cars" instead of "Toyota Camry 1998")
query is too specific
broaden your search using synonyms or larger categories
(e.g. searching for "flashing lime green stop sign in a gif format"
instead of "stop signs and gif"
search syntax is wrong or does not perform the way
you expect with the search tool you are currently using
review the "help" pages of the search tool you are using
Note: no one web tool catalogs or organizes the whole web.
When using a web finding aide it is important to remember that you are
searching and viewing data extracted from the web which has
been placed into a database. It is this database which is actually searched
-- not the web. This is one of the reasons why you get different
results when you use different search engines.
Don't understand? Don't panic! We will
be discussing these concepts in more detail during the course.
Sometimes you will find things that are not what you actually want,
but according to the search facility you are using, they are on target.
This may happen because:
Sometimes you will not find anything remotely on target:
The "hit" (web site presented as a match for your terms) contains the search
terms but they have multiple meanings
(for example: Blues can mean music or depression, depression can
describe a mental illness or a dimple in a cake...)
the search engine may index every word on pages so general queries bring
up a lot of documents where the search terms happen to occur in the text
(for example, documents about a topic tend to repeat key words and
phrases several times, not just once)
the search engine combines terms in a way you don't expect
(for example, you enter the search terms "new" and "york" expecting
documents that contain *both* terms and the search engine presents you
with documents that have *either* "new" or "york" )
the search engine assigns a high "relevancy ranking" to the document but
it is not on (your) topic
(each search engine uses a different algorithm or method of computing
something called "relevancy." Relevancy is an estimate regarding
how closely the search results match your search terms or concept. Search
results are usually presented with the top ranked in relevancy first.)
(More on this in Lesson 3)
the search engine misinterprets your "concept"
(some search engines will search or expand by "concept" or in other
words, its interpretation of your terms)
We will be discussing how to work around some of these features
of search engines, and specific search techniques later in the course.
remember you are searching a database, not the web
(perhaps the document(s) are not (yet) included in the database
you are searching -- try another search engine)
it may be that in the results list there is a web site which perfectly
meets your needs, but you do not find it because it was not assigned a
high relevancy ranking or assigned a strange ranking by the search engine
(sometimes this occurs when you find a lot of "hits" -- try using
a search engine that groups results in some manner)
sometimes case sensitivity is an issue
( you may need to search again using a different "case" -- especially
with proper names -- different search engines tackle this problem differently)
perhaps you are using the wrong "syntax" for the search engine you are
(by using + and - signs, or field labels such as url: or ti: you
can make your search more specific. Unfortunately, the way these signs/labels
are used varies among the search utilities)
if you are using a specialized search tool, perhaps it is not the right
one for your information need
(if you are looking for information in the Arts, an search engine
specialized in the Social Sciences will not be of much help)
For more information:
There are many Internet tutorials available on the web; these are highly
Get a jump-start in exploring some of the resources we will be looking
at over the next few weeks. Explore the following resources, comparing
notes and observations with your fellow students using the class board.
Use the "Starting Points for Exploration" as a guide. A tip: when comparing
resources or search strategies, try to use the same search strategy or
same search strategy or concept -- for example, if you are interested in
the Visual Arts, always choose this category or sub-category to form a
meaningful comparison in directories, or search for "graphic design" using
the search engines.
Starting Points for Exploration:
consider the following points for comparison:
how is the resource organized?
are there searching capabilities or is the site content available by browsing
how are the directories different? how are the search engines different?
how are they the same?
what are the differentiating elements between the "search engines" and
when would you use this resource?
Look at the following resources:
A special treat....
Last updated: February 24, 1999, Links checked:
February 24, 1999
Copyright © 1998-99, Angela Elkordy,
Assistant Professor and Coordinator of Electronic Resources, The Sage Colleges,