OK, you just heard about something great, or need to start research on a paper or project. Knowing that the information you want is "out there" on the internet is just your first step. Finding useful, credible information is both an art and a science. You will want to spend some time learning how to search for the information you want and how to weed out the extraneous, useless information you don’t want.
If you remember looking up information rapidly disappearing physical library Card Catalog, using the internet will basically be an extension of the skills you already have:
- Determining Keywords
- Using Indexes
- Following Through to find useful articles and information
If all of this is new to you, read on, though, you may first want to check out our Basic Internet Help:
Whether you are looking for college information, researching a paper or personal topic, it is helpful to first make a list of words and phrases that relate to your subject. Be creative. Let your mind wander, use an online thesaurus site for synonyms; put it down and come back later. Then, pick out a few of the most descriptive phrases to start with.
As an example, the following are a few terms I came up with when looking for adult college student information:
adult college student, adult learner, re-entry student, returning student, distance learning, continuing education, online degrees, college student, student orientation, campus counseling center, career change, study, student success, college funding, financial aid, grants, scholarships.
Once you start searching, your results will reveal other keywords that may help you hone in on your specific topic. The "search suggestions" option many sites offer —where a menu of choices are presented as you type — can be helpful too.
After you’ve determined some keywords and phrases, visit one of the search engines below (or your own favorite). The first thing to try is to just type in your phrase and hit enter, or the "find" button they provide. See what you get. If the results seem to broad, not related or in a foreign language, either try using more terms to search on, or visit that site’s searching help or options page. (For more help on this, see Following Through below.)
NOTE: In addition to advanced searching options, most of the searching engines below use "Boolean" search construction, meaning that you can use a + to force a term inclusion, a – to omit pages with a certain term or phrase, and "your phrase in here" within quote marks to force two or more words to be searched on as a phrase — such as a person’s name.
Each search engine and index runs a little differently. For multiple term searches, one engine might return better results if a + sign is used between terms rather than an &. Another one might have a different form altogether for an "advanced" search. Regardless, the individual sites’ help pages are the most reliable place to get information about using that site’s engine.
Some popular search engines and indexes are:
OK, so you typed in a search term or two and got thousands or millions of results! How are you ever going to find that specific morsel of information you are after??? Here are some pointers (also check out our article on authenticating resources):
- If your result is too broad and you get a bunch of irrelevant results, type in more key words. If you get zero results, type in fewer key words. Many search engines will allow you to use quotes (to search for a phrase) or a minus sign (to disallow certain words or phrases) to focus in on your subject. Additionally, look for an "Advanced Search" option.
Special tips for objects or things: Often, if your search on a object to find out more information about it, you’ll end up getting a bunch of links showing you where to buy it. For example, if you are doing research on the meaning of Aboriginal art and start your search with "Aboriginal art" you’ll get all sorts of results from importers to art galleries. (Oh, plus a wikipedia entry, which can be a useful resource for references). Make sure to include a descriptive word or phrase, such as "meaning" and you’ll immediately get better results.
- Narrow the search geographically. Add your city or state name as one of your searching terms if what your looking for is best found locally. Add just a state, country, or area if what your looking for is specific to a certain location. If you were doing research on polar bears in the wild, adding "North Pole" will get more relevant results than just "wild polar bears."
- Read the title and description of the web site listed on the results page. Well constructed sites (which may or may not relate to information credibility) will have a concise, readable title and description of their site. Many search engines will highlight your search terms within context in the description. This can be very useful for quickly determining the relevance of the site to your search.
- Be aware that some web sites pay for listing results. On the larger search sites, these are usually separated out, and noted as "Sponsored Links." On other sites, they will be highly designed so as to be indistinguishable from unpaid, or "organic" listings. While there is nothing inherently wrong with paying for link placement, most of these sites will be trying to sell you something. This is how they pay for their advertising.
- Look at the website address. If you are looking for a specific college, product, manufacturer, store, organization, etc., chances are, they probably have registered their own domain name and by becoming familiar with the anatomy of a web address (see the terms web address, directory, domain, subdomain in the glossary), you can fairly easily and reliably predict whether or not you’ve gotten a "score" on your search.
Educational and Government sites often provide reliable, free, usable information. Look to sites with domain names that end in ".edu" or ".gov" as generally reliable sources. Next in line might be ".org" sites which for the most part are non-profit organizations, and depending on your slant, may or may not provide you with the information your are looking for. Do not rule out ".com" sources as not all of these sites are simply out to take your money. Many sites, like AdultStudent.com, wish mostly to get useful content online to help others learn, and have learned that "dot-com" is king in domain naming.
Sometimes web sites with long addresses may be gone by the time you visit them, as they move or get redesigned when the host switches their website set-up. If they created a good title, and did some effective planning, you may be able to search on their specific web site or page title for an updated link. I’ve had good luck searching Google on specific phrases or sentences from a page (enclose them in quote marks), if you can remember something about the page.
- Open the link in a new tab or window. This way, you can go back to the search results page at will, and only bookmark the most useful sites. To do this, right click or control click your mouse to bring up a menu of window options.
- Bookmark your hottest prospects. By adding the site to your Favorites or Bookmark list, you can visit it later, and more importantly, return to it if you need to find bibliographical information. (Tip: make sure you learn how to edit your bookmarks or favorites, organize your useful links, and delete old or broken links. Otherwise you will get a long list of cryptic bookmarks).
- Use the "back" button on your browser, or alternately, the "History" or "Go" menus. The "back" button will take you to the last page you visited. This will come in handy if you performed a search on a search engine and want to get back to the list of returned sites with out having to type in the search again.
- Use a multi-search engine to start: www.dogpile.com, www.about.com, www.go2net.com or similar are good ones to try. They will search a number of other search engines for their top matches. You may get duplicate listings, but you’ll get a feel for which engine is providing you with the best matches for your query. If you want more listings from any one search engine, you can then visit the ones that have the most relevant data.
- Browse the search engine’s directory: Most search engines not only allow you to search the web for your term, but have already categorized listings of sites related to your question. Check the "Education" category on Yahoo.com, for example.
- Explore the sites you visit. If you find a single page article that has useful information on it, take the time to explore what else the site offers. Hit their Home Page link, or "back-step" as described below in "404 File Not Found."
- Use the site’s built-in search engine. Many sites incorporate their own on-site search engine. These are very useful for finding the specific information you might be after. Use your browser’s "find" command to search for a term on the page you’re browsing. This is useful on a page with a lot of content.
- Common web surfing errors
- Server busy error: This usually indicates that the server (a computer "hosting" the file or site) you’re wanting is either temporarily not functioning, overloaded, or the pathway to the server is obstructed somehow. Try to access the site at a later time.
- A Connection Failure Has Occurred: Similar to Server Busy Error. Try to access the site at a later time.
- Unable to locate a server: This usually means that the server is no longer in service, that you made a typing error, or the address wasn’t quite right. Sometimes, though, the big routing servers go down and computers from a certain region may not be able to "find" the address you want to go to. Try again later or check whether the domain name (server name) is valid. Do this by visiting http://www.networksolutions.com/whois/index.jsp for a "who is" searching gateway. You can type in the domain name and it will return a screen that tells you if and to whom the domain name has been registered.
If all else fails and you really want to see a abandoned website, try the "Way Back Machine." This site, officially known as the Internet Archive, maintains fairly complete records of websites as they existed in the past. It can be useful to find articles that have been removed from the "active" web. Be warned, there may be a reason the article or page was pulled from a current website — copyright issues or factual errors, or worse.
- "404 File not found" error when trying to access a site means that the server is working, but that the specific file is no longer available. Sometimes the owner of the file has changed services or reconstructed the site. If the owner has moved, you will have to search the title of the file on a search engine. If the site has been reorganized, you may be able to find the file you want by back-stepping the cursor in the address line deleting the characters back to a "/" mark and hitting "enter" again. Keep doing this until you get to a spot where a real page is displayed and look for the file you want.
For example, the file you want is at http://www.domain.com/first_directory/next_directory/filename.html and it doesn’t come up. Delete the "filename.html" so that the "/" is the last character (http://www.domain.com/first_directory/next_directory/) and hit enter again. You might get another 404 error, a "forbidden message," or if you’re lucky, you’ll get an index listing of what’s in that directory and you can see if the file you are after is there.
- "No Such Device or Address" This error generally means there is something wrong with your connection. Maybe the phone line came unplugged, or someone in the house picked up the other handset for just second. Best way to solve is to disconnect and reconnect to the internet, or resetting your modem or router. This may involve a computer restart. Sometimes, the problem can be on the service provider’s end, but not too often.