When Searches Fail
Another key to using the Internet effectively is knowing how to look. The most frustrating part of Web searches can be the results you get. Sometimes they are much too general. Sometimes they return pages that are not even remotely related. And sometimes nothing at all is returned. It can seem that the Internet is temperamental, but it is the quality of your search technique that determines the quality of the results you get. The following sections will help you improve your searching skills.
Usually when you search for a topic, you type in the keyword or keywords that you are looking for. Your results will be best if you use specific words or phrases and if you choose wording that might be found on the page you want. For instance, if you search for disaster crime you might get some strange results. If you search for post-disaster looting, however, you are likely to get results more closely related to what you want.
Search terms can be written in uppercase or lowercase letters, and don't require proper English. In fact, common words such as “and” and “to” are ignored by most search engines. If you use more than one keyword, a search engine will search for pages containing all of those words no matter where it finds them on the page. If you want to search for those keywords as a complete phrase, put quotation marks around them. Therefore, using the preceding example, you would type “post-disaster looting,” including the quotation marks.
One important skill to learn for your searches is how to use Boolean search terms. The word comes from the creator of such searches, mathematician George Boole. Boolean searches contain one or more of the terms “and,” “or,” and “not,” which are called operators. For example, if you use the term “and” in your keywords, the search engine will retrieve results containing all of the words you entered. Enter “disaster AND looting,” for instance, to retrieve results that contain both terms. Similarly, use “OR” to retrieve results that contain either term. This will be a much larger set of results. As you might guess, you use “NOT” to exclude any terms after that operator. For example, “looting NOT murder” would return results containing “looting” but not “murder.” Check your search engine's FAQs (frequently asked questions) for advanced tips on using Boolean search terms.
What if the word “the” is essential to my search?
If you need to include “the” or any other common words in your search, add a plus sign (+) in front of it. Make sure there is a blank space before the plus sign if another word precedes it.
Broaden or Narrow Your Search
If your search doesn't return anything useful, or anything at all, you need to broaden your search terms. Such can be the case if you search for “1942 hurricanes in new york.” The results page you get tells you that your search terms didn't match any documents. If you broaden the search to “1942 hurricanes,” however, many results come up. Unfortunately, many of them are references to British warplanes.
The most common error made when searching is a typo. You can't expect a search engine to give you relevant results if you type in “earthquack” instead of “earthquake” (although many search engines are smart enough to automatically correct simple typos and return results anyway). Unfortunately, search engines always look for what you type instead of what you think you type.
Sometimes your search can retrieve tens of thousands of results, or even more. This isn't much of a problem if the first page of results gives you what you want to know, but it is definitely an issue if the results have little to do with your topic. A search for “disasters” retrieves more than 2 million pages. Though the first page does have some information about airline disasters and oil spills, it contains nothing about the types of disasters you are interested in for your project. If you narrow down that search to “natural disasters,” the results are reduced to just under 800 pages. Though this is still a lot, most of those on the first page are highly relevant and may be all that you need, so the large numbers of results may not be an issue. You can narrow down the results still further, but you might be wise to first take notes from what you've already found.