At Work

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Tekhne - Artful Technology, Article 3 (Search)

The following is from a series of articles I wrote for the education section of the Central Oregonian.

9,000,000,000 results match your search!

So, let’s start with a quick recap of last month’s startling figure: the World Wide Web now contains over 100 million active Web sites. That translates to hundreds of billions of pages which, unfortunately, are not organized very well, as of yet. The Internet doesn’t have a card catalogue organized by subject, title, and author. And, for the most part, it doesn’t have a staff of friendly librarians waiting to assist us in our searches. (Note that in Oregon we have access to L-net, a free, online reference service staffed by librarians.)

What the Internet does have is online search engines. We can visit Google, Yahoo, MSN, Ask.com, or similar sites to retrieve information. This works fairly well for most general searches. We can find commercial sites, government sites, and education sites with usually just one search term or keyword. But, let’s say we’re interested in our local juniper (the plant, tree, or shrub).

A Google search for the keyword, juniper, returns 1,650,000 results. Of the first ten results, only one matches our original intent: a Wikipedia entry for juniper, the plant. One is related to the juniper berry. And the remaining eight are matches for products or services (and a Celtic band!) with Juniper in the name. We can see this is not an efficient search in the first ten results. So, let’s talk about some tips and tricks to search smarter, not harder:

1. Recognize the ads.
While this is not a tip for narrowing results, it takes the place of highest priority on this list. The major search engines rely on advertisers to foot the bill of providing free access to the public. On each search results page, pay attention to the areas dedicated to “sponsored results.” Usually these appear at the top or right of the page. If we want to buy juniper, then we’re in luck and can click away on those results. If, however, we want to research juniper, we should focus on the non-ad results.

2. Be as specific as possible.
This is an easy one. If we want to research the impact of juniper overgrowth in our state, we should use those terms: juniper overgrowth Oregon. If we are looking for ratings on a Nikon Coolpix digital camera, it’s the same principle. Use as many specific terms as possible: Nikon Coolpix digital camera ratings.

3. Use quotation marks, when appropriate.
The major search engines insert the word and in between each of our search terms. This is usually a good thing and a time-saver. They search for pages or sites that contain all of our terms. Sometimes, however, we want a specific result. Back to our juniper example…if we search for “juniper overgrowth” Oregon, the results returned should include the exact phrase, juniper overgrowth. With this Google search, we have now narrowed our list of results to three. Three! Much more manageable. (Tip highlight: quotation marks are especially helpful when searching for a person – enclose the first and last name in quotation marks.)

4. Accept help.
On the search results page, pay attention to the helpful hints provided by the site. If we misspelled our word, we can accept the recommended spelling. Or we can narrow our search by subject. One of the subject options on our original juniper search was “juniper shrub” or “juniper tree.” We can narrow our search results with one click.

5. Explore the advanced search and category search options.
Each of the four major search engines offers an advanced search feature. Advanced search is invaluable for specific research. We can limit our domain extensions (e.g., searching only .edu sites for research publications). Or we can narrow our search by format (e.g., finding only results in .pdf format).

In addition to Advanced Search, the big four also offer search categories. If we know that we are looking for a photo of a juniper tree, we can limit our search to images. Or we can choose news articles or blog entries about juniper. We can search stock quotes, if we are interested in one of the corporate Junipers. Or even audio or video, if we are really looking for a performance from that Celtic band, Juniper. Advanced search and category search are available as options on each site’s home page.

These are just the beginning steps for smarter searches. We’ll touch on more advanced tips later in the year. Until then, smart searching!