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Searching and Sleuthing: Search Tools

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Web Searching, Sleuthing and Sifting

Web Searching, Sleuthing and Sifting 
Lesson One: 
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): 
  • 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
What the web is not
  • 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 itself)
  • 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. 


  • 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 government subsidies") 
  • 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: 

  • 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)
Sometimes you will not find anything remotely on target: 
  • 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 using

  • (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)
We will be discussing how to work around some of these features of search engines, and specific search techniques later in the course.

For more information:

There are many Internet tutorials available on the web; these are highly recommended: 

Suggested Exercises:

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 only?
  • 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 "directories?"
  • when would you use this resource?

Look at the following resources:

Subject directories:

Search engines:

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,