“The world wide web is said to be the world’s largest library – except that the books are scattered all over the floor.” – Anonymous
One of the advantages of the world wide web is that it is very easy and inexpensive to “publish” material, that is to create a web page. It is estimated that the web contains more than 500 million pages of information and that the number of pages is growing by 5000 pages per day.When you combine the sheer size of the web with the seeming lack of organization, you may be asking yourself how does anyone find anything. And when do they find the time!
There are many web search tools to choose from but often that doesn’t make the process any easier. Often each will return hundreds of thousands of pages, which, while smaller than the total number of pages, still leaves you with a large task. Hopefully, the following suggestions and reference points will help you find what you need.
Step 1 – Plan Your Search
Before you can find anything, you have to know what you’re looking for. A rather simplistic statement but essential to any web search. Think about your topic and about the question you’re trying to answer.
Think about the people, terms, organizations, places, objects, etc. that might be mentioned in any web page that would contain the answer to your question. Write down a short list of these terms as you think of them.
Next create what the WebQuest people call a “3M list” of keywords. Divide the list into words that Must appear in the pages, Might appear in the pages and that Must Not appear in the pages.
In the MUST column, write any terms that would surely appear on a web page that’s relevant. You want to be sure that every page that the search engine points you to includes these words.
In the MIGHT column, put words that are synonyms for relevant terms, any of which might appear on a page of interest to you.
In the MUST NOT column, put words that would exclude pages that use some of the same words you’re after, but which you aren’t interested in.
For example, suppose that you’re putting together an activity in which students will look at the idea of “revolution” as portrayed in different countries. Their task is to examine a number of postage stamps issued by countries celebrating a successful revolution, to find common themes and images, and to draw some general conclusions about how history gets written by the victors.
So, you need to round up some appropriate pictures and descriptions of stamps. Accordingly, you generate a list of terms that are relevant to the topic and then put them into the 3M columns.
You decide that any appropriate page would have the words stamp, revolution, and commemorative on it, and that other relevant words would be postage, postal, and first day cover. You aren’t interested in coins depicting revolution, nor in rubber stamps, nor in the Beatles song Revolution, so you put those in the MUSTN’T column.
Step 2 – See If Someone Has Found The Information For You
With your 3M list in hand, you might be tempted to head for your favorite search engine. However, you may not have to do all the work. Many teachers have already searched the web and found a lot of the curriculum materials you could use. Before you look yourself…
- Ask your colleagues.
- Check your professional journals.
- Check the web site of your professional organizations.
- Use one of these education-specific directories:
General Directories for Education
Subject Specific Directories
An additional list of specialized web directories can be found at the WebQuest Training Materials pages.
Step 3 – Use A Web Directory (like Yahoo)
While Yahoo has a search tool, it also features a categorized directory of web site – and that can work to your advantage. Unlike most web search engines, the Yahoo Directory indexes web sites and not pages. So use Yahoo if…
- you are looking for web sites (as opposed to specific pages) for your students to use and
- you didn’t find the ones you needed in the subject-specific directories
Yahoo’s home page shows all of their major categories down the left side along with some feature information chosen by the Yahoo editors. Clicking on a category leads to a list (sometimes a long one) of subcategories which may lead to even more subcategories.
One of the problems with browsing through Yahoo categories is that you may have to run through five or six pages before you find an appropriate site (or find that there isn’t one). One of the benefits is that you may stumble across categories or sites that you never knew existed.
Yahoo also allows you to search for keywords in the site names and descriptions (make sure you are searching the directory). Start by typing one or more of your keywords in the box next to the button marked Search and then click on that button. If you type more than one word, Yahoo will list only those sites with all the words in the name or description. Keep in mind that the search is only looking through the descriptions written by Yahoo’s people.
Most of the time this will give you a good start on your search but it can also produce surprising results. For example, suppose you need information on the planet Saturn. Type Saturn in the box and click Search. The resulting list will include lots of car dealers but no astronomical sites.
Step 4 – Use A True Search Engine
Unlike Yahoo’s directory, a general web search engine (such as the ones listed below), searches for your keywords in a database made up of words gathered from millions of web pages. The result of your search is a list of individual web pages which contain your words, listed in order of relevance.
“Relevance”, of course, is based on the criteria established by the people who created the search tools you are using. Most search engines give higher significance to pages which have your keywords in the title of the page or which use your words frequently. Pages in which your words are grouped closely together also tend to rise to the top of the search results.
My current favorite search engine is Google because it seems to provide the most relevant links and just plain seems to work better. Besides, any site with an “I Feel Lucky” button is worth a look!
If you can’t find what you need on Google, you may need to try a different or more specialized web search tool such as one of these engines.
MSN Search Live
To get the best results from a search engine you must learn to use the features and, while all of them use the same basic tools, they also have their unique way of doing things. The best idea for web searching is to pick one of the major search tools and learn to use it well.Here are some of the basic tools common to most search engines:
Include and Exclude (+ and -)
+ and – signs are used to tell the search engine to include or exclude words. For example, if you wanted to find sites about backgammon tournaments, you’d type both words into the query box. However, this would find you sites that mentioned backgammon OR tournament. You want to find sites that use BOTH terms, so by putting a + before each term you force them to be included in all sites found.
Note: There’s no space between the + and the word, but there is a space between words. e.g.: +backgammon +tournament
Here’s another example. Suppose you wanted to find sites about the lost continent of Atlantis, not the shuttle Atlantis and not the movie of the same name. This search would look like: +atlantis +continent -shuttle -movie
As you do each search, take note of what kinds of things turn up. Notice that the more specific the terms you include and exclude, the more focused your search.
Wildcard Characters (*)
A common mistake people make is to inadvertently narrow their search too much by excluding variations on a word they’re looking for. For example, if you typed in +mushrooms, you’d miss all those pages that just had the singular word mushroom on them.
In most search sites, the * wildcard stands for any letter(s). The wildcard is also useful for catching other variations on a word such as different forms of a verb. In general, never search for the plural of a word. Use the wildcard and get both the singular and plural forms.
“Quotes” = Phrase
If you type a sequence of words in as a query, most search sites will look for documents that contain any of those words (default to a boolean OR). If you want the words to hang together as a phrase, you should put double quotes around them.
If you leave out the quotation marks, most of the major engines will usually give higher priority to pages in which your words appear together. If you type a few words in, and those words are commonly found hanging together in its index, it will assume that you’re searching for them as a phrase even if you don’t put quotes around them. If you’re looking for a phrase that is not common, though, you’ll need the quotes.
Avoid Using Upper Case
If you use capital letters, most search engines assume you only want to match words with that specific pattern. For example, if you search for paris, you will find pages referring to the city but also some about plaster of paris. Paris with a capital P, however, will lead you to the city faster.
Step 5 – Give Up!
Although some people will try to tell you anything can be found on the Internet, it’s just not true. If, at this point you have not found the information you need, it is very possible that it has not been posted to a web page. Or it is available but only if you are willing to pay for it. Now is the time to head to the library and use some good old fashioned books.