Finding What You Need: Using Internet Search Engines

By Hall, Marc Elliot | Leadership, September 2000 | Go to article overview

Finding What You Need: Using Internet Search Engines


Hall, Marc Elliot, Leadership


Discouraged when you get two million results to an Internet search query? Learn how to take your search skills up a notch!

Essential to finding what you need on the Internet is knowing how and where to look.

Many people searching for information on the Web assume that simply typing in a key word or two and clicking OK will "automagically" produce useful results. But this method does not optimize the results of your search, either producing too many (potentially many thousands) or too few relevant links.

This article will outline search techniques, reveal how some major Web sites will react to those techniques, and finally deliver some tricks you can use to improve your search results. Although entire books have been written on the subject of Internet searches, the tips here will offer a good start to help you understand how Internet searches work--and help you find what you need.

How to look

As an example, let's say we want to find relevant Web pages referring to the latest hot topic, the shortage of school administrators. First, we need to decide which words are most likely to be referenced in Web pages we want to see. "School," "administrator" and "shortage" are all likely candidates. But what about "K-12," "principal" and "superintendent?" Which words may appear but aren't essential, like "teacher" and "student?" And which words might appear in similar, but irrelevant, articles?

There is also a shortage of information technology workers, but we probably aren't interested in Web pages about that. So are there any words we definitely don't want to see? What about "information technology?" Wait -- that's not a word, it's a phrase. Hmm ... I'll explain how to do phrases in a moment. First, Boolean logic, and why it matters.

Boolean logic

Boolean logic is named for its inventor, George Boole, one of the greatest mathematicians of the 19th century. Among his contributions to the field of logic is the idea that groups can be structured to include or exclude objects based on the characteristics of those objects. Further, he proposed that simple rules could be devised to make the determination of which objects go in which groups. (Technically, Boole proposed that comparison results could be expressed as true or false.) This now commonsensical notion was revolutionary for its time, and became one of the foundations of computer science. But what does this have to do with Web searches, you ask?

Most Internet search facilities use Boolean logic to respond to information queries. Simply put, a search engine determines whether you want some, all or none of your key words to be part of the document it finds for you. These search parameters are generally specified, depending on the search facility being used, by including symbols (+, -, !, and, or, not, Xor) in various combinations with your key words or phrases. These symbols and words are called Boolean operators because they determine what operation is performed on your key words in a Boolean search.

Plusses, minuses and bangs

The + (plus) operator is used to specify a word that must be included in the search. The - (minus) operator is used to specify a word that must not be included in the search. And the ! (exclamation point, or bang in computer parlance) operator, similar to the -, specifies a word or phrase to exclude. For example, for our hypothetical search on the administrator shortage, we could use + education + administrator - teacher to require that the words "education" and "administrator" .both appear in our results while excluding the word "teacher." Not all search engines support the !, but it's fun to see how search results vary by replacing - with !

And, or, not and Xor

And, or and not each have a special meaning for searches. Using the words rather than the symbols as your operators may make it easier for you to structure your search, especially if you're a more verbal person.

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