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Searching and Evaluating Web Resources

 Strategies for finding things on the web

"Research is the process of going up alleys to see if they are blind."

--Marsten Bates, 1967

The Problem

The best way to look at Internet resources is through the focus of specific needs. Otherwise, you can spend a lifetime drifting through archipelagos of fascinating but ultimately fruitless links.

You're hungry. You go into a restaurant, sit down by the table and wait for the waiter. The waiter arrives, coughs politely, and asks: "What do you want for dinner, sir?" or "What would you like today, madam?" "Food," you answer, "food".

Fortunately, waiters are an understanding and patient lot. "Certainly, sir. What kind of food did you have in mind? May I recommend the salmon?"

Your average search engine is not that understanding. A search for food in Alta Vista brings up 21,652,651 webpages. 21 million pages are just too many to stomach. And, no, the search engine does not try to find out what you're really looking for.

So, why aren't directories and searching tools the answer to the"information explosion" on the web? There are a number of reasons, but they largely have to do with a) the sheer size of the web, b) the difficulties associated with programming "smart" services that think like humans, and c) the importance of marketing over technical advances in many services on the Internet.

Web searching tools are a tremendous resource. However, no one engine is a silver bullet, and it has become clear over the years that the ability to strategically use a number of tools together is what makes the Internet so powerful. To be aware of all of the valuable tools and know how to use them together is what will truly help you to be web savvy.

Your searches are only as good as your queries

Contrary to the hype surrounding "intelligent agents" and "artificial intelligence," the fact remains that search results are only as good as the query you pose and how you search.

There are literally thousands of search engines, portals, vortals, directories and gateways to help you find what you are looking for. Each has its own pros and cons. Some are general tools, some specific to a particular type of information. Each have different tools and building a toolbox of these services and knowing how to use each effectively is the key to a good search strategy.

Before you search

It's always a good idea to think about your search before you begin. Deciding on exactly what you want and expressing this in words is much more powerful than any search engine. A well considered query will overcome the defects of a weak search engine but a powerful search tool will not rescue you from a badly considered query

State to yourself what you want to find. You might find it useful to write it down on a (gasp!) piece of paper in plain English.

Before you resort to a web search, consider if any of the web (or other) sources of information with which you are already familiar with might provide you with what you need.

Which tool?

Decide what sort of search tool is appropriate. You might use other tools later as you refine your search.

  1. If you're browsing and trying to determine what's available in your subject area, start out by selecting a subject directory like Yahoo! Then, enter your search keyword(s) into one of the meta-search engines, such as Ixquick, just to see what's out there.
  2. If you're looking for a specific piece of information, go to a major search engine such as Fast (All the Web) Search or Google, or to a specialized database such as Voice of the Shuttle (for humanities research) or the Bureau of the Census (for statistics).
  3. If you want to retrieve everything you can on a subject, try the same search on several search engines. Also, don't forget to check resources off the Web, such as books, newspapers, journals and other print reference sources. Find, join and ask questions on appropriate newsgroups and/or mailing lists.
  4. If you want to find authenticated academic subject specific information, you should use a subject gateway or vortal.

Get to know your search tool.

Read the manual! – read the help information, find out what the search engine can do and how. Admittedly the basic rules are the same, but the variations will affect the results of your query Search engines are always adding new features so you may need to review this from time to time

In your search statement, if you enter more than one keyword without using any accompanying sign, mark or symbol, the search engine will automatically add either the AND or the OR conjunction to link your search terms together. This could radically alter your search in unexpected ways. Be sure you know the defaults (basic settings) of the search engine you are using, as this could explain why your search results may not be what you expected them to be.

Strange things can happen for other reasons as well. Sometimes the relevance ranking systems that search engines use (and which they are reluctant to reveal), can throw off your search by ignoring some of the words in your search statement. This might happen when the search engine recognizes your string of separate keywords as a phrase in its list of pre-determined phrases or when it is responding to its own internal list of "stop words". Whatever the case, you may never know the real reason why your search retrieves so many irrelevant responses.

Start with what you know

Ask yourself what you already know about the subject, pick out the keywords and use them (and relevant synonyms) in your search query. The question:

"I want to find information about Canadians taking part in the invasion of Normandy on the D-day of World War II"

may give the following query:

D-day AND (Canadian* OR Canada) AND Normandy AND ("world war II" OR "second world war").

Re-evaluate your query to see if you are likely to be excluding important groups of sites.

What kind of website is likely to hold the information in the depth that you want it? Think about the language those websites might use.

 Search engine tips

Creating a search statement

When structuring your query, keep the following tips in mind:

1. Whenever possible, use nouns and objects as keywords
EXAMPLE:  Hurricane Hugo 
2. Stop words

So-called "stop words" -- common verbs, adjectives, adverbs, pronouns, prepositions like "and, in, or, of" are often ignored by search engines or too variable to be useful (unless they are part of a phrase). Some search engines will let you search stop-words if you put them in quotes or enter a +-sign immediately before them.

EXAMPLE: "Cat +on +a hot tin Roof”
3. Be specific

If you are looking for information on Golden Retrievers, do not search for dogs in general. Avoid common terms like ‘Internet’ or ‘people’, unless they are a part of a phrase.

Unless the word is extremely specific, use at least two keywords in a query. More keywords will give you a smaller and more focused list of hits.

EXAMPLE: Dublin Core metadata 
4. Avoid common words, e.g., green, unless they're part of a phrase
EXAMPLE:  "green tea" 
5. Use at least three keywords in your query
EXAMPLE:  vitamins drugs interaction 
6. Put most important terms first in your keyword list.

Search engines often list the pages that match the first keyword at the top of their list of findings. To ensure that they will be searched, put a +sign in front of each one

If you want to make certain that the phrases to the left are given priority, you can try putting them in parentheses:

EXAMPLE: ("searching the web") AND (tutorial* OR manual*) 
EXAMPLE:  +hybrid +electric +gas +vehicles 
7. Combine keywords, whenever possible into phrases (enclosed by quotation marks)
EXAMPLE:  "search engine tutorial" 
8. Think about words you'd expect to find in the body of the page, and use them as keywords
EXAMPLE:  anorexia bulimia eating disorder 
9. Use Boolean operators to widen or narrow yopur search
EXAMPLE:  “fruit fly” –genetics
“fruit fly” AND NOT genetics
pets OR cats
10. Synonyms

If you do not find what you are looking for, search for synonyms. Use the OR operator:

EXAMPLE: dogs OR canines.
11. Write down your search statement and revise it before you type it into a search engine query box
EXAMPLE:  "college savings plans" "Section 529" +state +sponsored
12. Do not make your queries too complicated. Avoid complex nesting with too many brackets

13. Consider using field searching to get more relevant hits.

Domain specific searches

On you have the option to search only UK pages. If you’re looking for something UK-based on the Internet (like me for example) you could type in "Mark Childs" and select pages from the UK .

You can narrow the domain specific searches even more, for example you can search just the academic websites by adding to your search criteria. Every country has a different domain name, for example "Mark Childs" site:fi will search websites in Finland.

Search for instance for words in the titles of webpages:

EXAMPLES:  title:"gardening"

See what the Advanced Searching interface of the search engine offers to search for instance for pages in a particular language or file format.

Language specific searches

Google offers the option of choosing to only find pages written in a specific language, sort of. Go to Advanced Search for the option. It’s not 100% accurate. In with the English pages you’ll get a few Romanian or Italian thrown in, but it can be useful sometimes, depending on the search you’re doing.

14. Use quotation marks and capitals when searching for names:
EXAMPLE: "Bill Clinton"

There may be several variations of the same name, though:

EXAMPLE: "Bill Clinton" OR "William Clinton" OR 
"William J. Clinton" OR "William Jefferson Clinton".

In cases like these consider using the NEAR-operator (without quotation marks) in Alta Vista and AOL

EXAMPLE: Bill OR William) NEAR Clinton.
15. Avoiding words and phrases

Sometimes you might want a search which avoids hits with particular words on. E.g. if I was to look up "Mark Childs" on the Internet a lot of the hits would be for a well-known American cantor. If I want to exclude pages about him I’d type "Mark Childs" –cantor into the box and search on that.

16. Cases.

Google is sometimes case sensitive. “Bill Gates” will get you only Bill Gates while bill gates will get you Bill Gates, BILL GATES, bill gates etc

17. Plurals

Most search engines will automatically search for the plurals of single words but this is not the case in phrases.

Try doing the search again with the singular.

EXAMPLE:  ("aspect +of practice") OR ("aspects +of practice").
18. Check your spelling! Then check it again!

Spelling: Google is good at picking up mis-spelling and suggesting a correct spelling – unless the word you type in is still a real word but a different one from the one you meant. For example "aspect of practise" won’t work.

19. UK/US spelling:

You can’t find what you’re looking for it might be because it’s spelt differently in the US. Remember "–er" instead of "–re", "-ize" instead of "–ise", "-or" instead of "–our" as word endings. Some words use "k" instead of "c" and "e" instead of "ae". Sometimes the last syllable is missing altogether. Since about half the pages on the Internet are American, it’s worth making sure you’ve checked them too.

EXAMPLES:  colour OR color
luggage OR baggage
20. Use several search services. Not one of them covers more than a part of the web.

If you are not having any luck with one search engine, look at others and other types of search tools.

21. Once you’re there

Some web pages are very long. To find the specific information you want on the page use the "Find in page" or "Find on this page" option on your browser (under Edit or just do Ctrl F in Netscape and Explorer) and type in the key words or phrase into that.

22. Other Functionality

Google also enables you to look up the definitions of words, by typing the phrase define: e.g. define:glasnost

You can also do calculations, e.g. convert 1.35 kilograms to pounds by typing 1.35kg in pounds or even light years to parsecs by typing 4.3 light years in parsecs.

 Evaluating web resources

Once you've got your search results, how do you know if they're any good?

The Internet is full of information but a lot of it is not of the high quality you might hope for. This is largely because anyone can publish anything on the Internet.

This means that the type of resource is more difficult to determine. You can expect to find everything on the web: silly sites, hoaxes, frivolous and serious, personal pages, commercials, reviews, articles, full-text documents, academic courses, scholarly papers, reference sources, and scientific reports

authenticity is also more difficult to determine

Little of what you find in a general search will have passed through any review process.

The quality of Internet resources varies a great deal. It is usually left up to the user to decide whether the resource is of a high or low quality – is accurate, has sufficient coverage, is unbiased etc. If you want to find the right information for you on the Internet it can pay to evaluate the quality of the resources you are looking at.

  1. be clear about your purpose
  2. orientate yourself – where is this Web page?
  3. get clues about the content from the URL –, edu, gov are usually reliable but are they official or private pages?
  4. establish the type of resource you are looking at.
  5. evaluate the resource against quality criteria (see below)
  6. weigh up the pros and cons in the light of your original purpose

The Internet Detective Website lists the following criteria that you should consoider. See the website for more help on evaluating quality.

Content Criteria
Content Criteria focus on the information contained within a resource. The main criteria to consider are:

  • Validity
  • Accuracy
  • The Authority and Reputation of the Source
  • Uniqueness
  • Completeness
  • Coverage

Validity depends on how well founded, trustworthy and reliable the content of the resource is.

Closely related to validity, the accuracy of a resource will depend on how correct all the information actually is.

Authority and Reputation of the Source
The authority and reputation of the source of the information will depend on the expertise, reputation and status of the source.

Uniqueness relates to the amount of primary information contained within the resource which is not obtainable from other sources.

A complete resource will be a finished piece of work that is available online in its entirety.

Coverage and Comprehensiveness
The depth and breadth of the information

Think also about:

Look to see if website has been updated recently, as reflected in the date on the page Is the material contained on the page is current?

There is no way to freeze a web page in time. Unlike the print world with its publication dates, editions, ISBN numbers, etc., web pages are fluid. There's no bibliographic control on the web. The page you cite today may be altered or revised tomorrow, or it might disappear completely. The page owner might or might not acknowledge the changes and, if he relocates the page, might or might not leave a forwarding address.

Try to assess the stability of the pages you reference. Again, one of the best ways to do this is to look closely at the page sponsor, last date updated, and the authority of the author(s).

When you are writing a paper and using web pages as source material, keep a backup of what you find on the web, (either as a printout or saved to disk) so that you can verify your sources later on if need be.