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Searching for information: a practical guide

Google

Searching for information is not always straightforward. We got a bunch of librarians to suggest some insider pointers and useful techniques.
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Let's talk about Google...

cat

We all use Google, pretty much. There's nothing wrong with it. It's a very useful and effective search engine. Let's do a search for something popular. Cat's are all over the internet: let's search for cat:


How many results would a search for cat return on Google?


Over 6 billion
Exactly 1,000
Less than 500

How Google works

Google searches the internet, right?

Well, it mostly searches webpages (this is a webpage). It takes a page like this and indexes it in a way that it can be quickly searched: there'll be the text on the page plus various bits of metadata about the page that you wouldn't normally see.

Then Google follows the links on the page in search of other pages it can index. Sometimes those pages will have a tag in them saying "don't index me" and so Google won't index them. Sometimes Google will hit a login screen and won't be able to go any further. And there are whole bits of the web that aren't linked to other bits of the web, and so Google can't find them. But there's a lot of stuff out there, and Google finds an awful lot of it.

How does Google decide what to show you?

Google ranks its results using a secret algorithm that incorporates things such as how many times the word is mentioned on the page, whether the word is in the title, and what links to the page. Other factors include where you are and what you've searched for in the past, so:

  • A Google search on campus will retrieve more scholarly results than one off campus, because it knows you're at a university.
  • If I do a lot of searches for dogs and then I do a search for cat I might get a surprising number of dogs in my results...

Google image results for CAT showing three dogs and a cat - an exaggeration of a real phenomenon


So Google is trying to give us what it thinks we want. It's trying to be helpful. But the ≈0% of results Google gives you that it thinks you need aren't necessarily the results that you actually need.

What can we do about this...?

Improving your Google search

We can exercise more control by using Google's Advanced Search options. We can even use this to search across a particular website or in specific domains like .ac.uk (UK universities) or .gov.uk (UK government).

Logging out of Google or using the privacy mode on your browser will give you a less tailored set of results, which (as the dog/cat example demonstrated) can be beneficial if you're researching a new topic.

The Verbatim option will force Google to stop guessing and to only search using the specific words you enter:

Tools > All results > Verbatim

Tools > All results > Verbatim


If you want to get really clever, you can even use special search operators in your search.

For material of a more academic nature, there's also Google Scholar...

Other Google search tools (and other search tools full stop)

Along the top of Google are specialised ways of searching for specific categories of information, such as Maps, Images, News, and Videos. But there are a few other useful Google toys to be aware of, too...

Google Scholar

If you're searching for academic literature, Google Scholar is the place to be. Take a look at our dedicated page:

Google Dataset Search

As its name suggests, Google Dataset Search is a search engine for datasets. It indexes datasets from thousands of online repositories, but be aware that it locates files on the basis of how their owners have classified them, not on their content, as it doesn't read the content of the files themselves.

There's also Google Public Data Explorer which lets you explore and communicate large, public-interest datasets via charts and maps.

Google Books

One of the options hiding at the top of Google is Google Books: basically, Google scanned a load of books and you can sometimes access samples of the text and search against them. Copyright means that a lot of content is restricted but it can still be a useful way of finding more obscure content.

Google Trends & Ngram Viewer

If you want to get an idea of how terms have gone in and out of use, Google has another couple of tools up its sleeve:

Google Trends lets you explore the ways search terms have been used in Google since 2004, and lets you compare different searches.

If you want to go further back in time than 2004, there's the Google Books Ngram Viewer which searches the contents of the Google Books collection to depict changing rates of a word's presence in the corpus.

Google Arts & Culture

Google Arts & Culture is a special project that lets you explore the contents of museums and galleries in a range of different ways.

Other search engines

Of course, Google doesn't have the monopoly on searching for things. Bing, for instance, is particularly strong in terms of videos (because it doesn't over-favour YouTube) and maps (because it has Ordnance Survey mapping), and DuckDuckGo is a popular choice for private searching. If books are your thing, then specialist online collections like Project Gutenberg or the Internet Archive will also be worth a look. As will the various databases to which the University subscribes. But more of that sort of thing later.

A TARDIS

The Wayback Machine

One of the most important tools on the Internet Archive is the Wayback Machine which maintains historical snapshots of websites. There's huge gaps in its collection, just as there's gaps in Google, but it's a great way to see not only how the internet has changed but also what content was being shared at various points in the past. Websites may change, but so long as the page has been archived by the Wayback Machine you can go back to see what it used to say at a given date.

Academic Googling: opening up the search box

There's a lot of stuff on Google. How can you find the things you really need? In these slides, from our Academic Googling session, we also look at the other places where academic sources of information can be found, and learn how to tailor our search skills to take advantage of different tools.

Understanding algorithms

Algorithms and algorithmic systems are all around us. In this video, Dr David Beer talks us through why they’re important, and why we need to be aware of their influence on our lives.

Forthcoming training sessions

Forthcoming sessions on :

Show details & booking for these sessions

There's more training events at:

Grey literature

A lot of academically useful material is not published through conventional channels, and so a web search might end up being the best way to find such 'grey' literature:

Exercises

Power Searching

If you're interested in developing your search skills even more, Google runs a short course on Power Searching, teaching tips and tricks to streamline and improve your searches.