Tips on Searching and Evaluating

Learn the Features and Capabilities of a Search Tool or Service

Common Search Features:
Implied Boolean operators
  • use + to require a term be present, +term means term must be present
  • use - to exclude a term, -term means term must not be present
  • use two quotation marks to enclose a phrase, terms must appear in the order given; for example "gibson acoustic guitar"
Truncation or Wild Cards
  • use * to represent different endings for a word; for example comput* would be used to match terms computer, computing, computers, computation

Basic Search Strategy: The Ten Steps

The following list provides a guideline for you to follow in formulating search requests, viewing search results, and modifying search results. These procedures can be followed for virtually any search request, from the simplest to the most complicated. For some search requests, you may not want or need to go through a formal search strategy. If you want to save time in the long run, however, it's a good idea to follow a strategy, especially when you're new to a particular search engine.

A basic search strategy can help you get used to each search engine's features and how they are expressed in the search query. Following the 10 steps will also ensure good results if your search is multifaceted and you want to get the most relevant results.  

  1. Identify the important concepts of your search.
  2. Choose the keywords that describe these concepts.
  3. Determine whether there are synonyms, related terms, or other variations of the keywords that should be included.
  4. Determine which search features may apply, i.e., truncation, proximity operators, Boolean operators, etc.
  5. Choose a search engine.
  6. Read the search instructions on the search engine's home page. Look for sections entitled help, advanced search, frequently asked questions, etc.
  7. Create a search expression, using syntax, which is appropriate for the search engine.
  8. Evaluate the results. Are the results relevant to your query?
  9. Modify your search if needed. Go back to steps 2-4 and revise your query accordingly.
  10. Try the same search in a different search engine, following steps 5-9 above.
For an example take a look at "Finding and Evaluating Information on the World Wide Web," and Hartman.)

Search Tips

For multi-faceted searches a full-text database is best. For a search involving one facet like a person's name or a phrase without stop words, search engines that provide keyword indexing will be sufficient.

After determining whether your search has yielded too few Web pages (low recall), there are several things to consider:

If your search has given you too many results with many not on the point of your topic (high recall, low precision), consider the following:

Evaluating and Verifying Resources

When we access or retrieve something on the Internet we need to be able to decide whether the information is useful, reliable, or appropriate for our purposes. Guidelines
Who is the author or institution?
  • If the author is a person, does the resource give biographical information? 
  • If the author is an institution, is there information provided about it? 
  • Have you seen the author's or institution's name cited in other sources or bibliographies? 
  • The URL can give clues to the authority of a source. A tilde ~ in the URL usually indicates that it is a personal page rather than part of an institutional Web site.
How current is the information?
  • Is there a date on the Web page that indicates when the page was placed on the Web? 
  • Is it clear when the page was last updated? 
  • Is some of the information obviously out-of-date? 
  • Does the page creator mention how frequently the material is updated 
Who is the audience?
  • Is the Web page intended for the general public, scholars, practitioners, children, etc.? Is this clearly stated? 
  • Does the Web page meet the needs of its stated audience?
Is the content accurate and objective?
  • Are there political, ideological, cultural, religious, or institutional biases? 
  • Is the content intended to be a brief overview of the information or an in-depth analysis? 
  • If the information is opinion is this clearly stated? 
  • If there is information copied from other sources is this acknowledged? Are there footnotes if necessary?
What is the purpose of the information?
  • Is the purpose of the information to inform, explain, persuade, market a product, or advocate a cause? 
  • Is the purpose clearly stated? 
  • Does the resource fulfill the stated purpose?
Some techniques you can apply to help with evaluation:

Who is the author or institution?

Look for the name of the author or institution at the top or bottom of a Web page. Go to the home page for the site that hosts the information to find out about the organization. You do this by extracting the first part of the URL - the part starting with http:// up to the first slash (/).  
Domain Description
.edu educational (anything from serious research to zany student pages)
.gov governmental (usually dependable)
.com commercial (may be trying to sell a product)
.net network (may provide services to commercial or individual customers)
.org organization (non-profit institutions; may be biased)

How current is the information?

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FROM the fortune list ...

Describing the Internet as the Network of Networks is like calling the Space Shuttle, a thing that flies - John Lester of Mass. General Hospital (from his email signature file).

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