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Searching for information: a practical guide

Searching online

Searching for information is not always straightforward. We got a bunch of librarians to suggest some insider pointers and useful techniques.

Searching for information online

In subsequent sections of this guide we'll talk a lot about searching for information online, particularly in terms of academic sources, so we won't get too involved here, but let's consider some basic principles:

Keyword matching

At their simplest, most search boxes essentially work on a principle of 'keyword matching': if you type cat into a search box, the computer will search for the word "cat" and return any documents or pages that contain that word. Unlike with the index of a book, pages mentioning kittens or felines won't get returned.

It gets more complicated if you have two words: cat litter might only search for the phrase "cat litter" or it might search for the words "cat" and "litter" separately, depending on how the search engine has been programmed (its algorithm). So a file or page talking about "a cat having a litter of kittens" may or may not be among the results.

Most internet search engines (for instance Google) tend to have very advanced search algorithms which are very forgiving and which will second-guess what it is you're actually looking for. Sometimes they even seem to work better if you phrase your search as a question! This 'fuzzy' approach to searching can be useful, but it relies on the search engine making the right guesses (which won't always be the case!).

In academia we'll often find ourselves using far less sophisticated search engines which don't have anywhere near the same money and time invested into them as Google and so don't have the ability to guess what we're looking for. This does at least give us a lot more control over the search, and a lot more clarity about how that search is working. But we will have to be more deliberate and more careful about the search terms we use. We might even have to carry out multiple different searches before we find everything we need.

But that's fine. All searching is an iterative process: you try a search, you see what you get, and then you modify your search to see if you can get something closer to what you're after.

Digging through the results

Depending on what you're searching, you may have hundreds of search results to deal with. Again, you'll want to scan and skim the stubs of information you're given to get a rough idea of how relevant they are. Whatever sorting algorithm is being used to display your results, you're probably going to need to go beyond the first page. You might even need to go right through to the end. So being able to make quick judgements about the worth of a result is a skill well worth developing. We'll try to give you a few pointers on that sort of thing as we go through...

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