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Home > How To > Use the Internet for Research

How To Use The Internet For Research

Improve Your Searches, Check the Validity, and Cite Your Sources.

Improve Your Search Results

Going to your favorite search engine to look for specific results can be tricky; entering straight-forward keywords frequently can lead you to hundreds or thousands of results. In order to improve your results, you need to remember several things.

Is the Web a good research tool? The answer is a qualified yes, but only if you are careful.

T is for Thinking: The ICYouSee Guide to Critical Thinking About What You See on the Web
(ICYouSee.org)

Use Help

Many search engines have "Help" links. Following these links can give you hints about how that specific service works and ways you can improve your search.

Upper or Lowercase

While search engines once were case sensitive, most no longer are. For example, searching on Blizzard will give you the same top results as typing blizzard —first, you will see the homepage of the gaming company (Blizzard Entertainment), followed by stories about the company and its games, followed by information about blizzards. Many search engines rate the information in the order that it is most commonly asked for. More users entering blizzard want information about Blizzard Entertainment than the weather condition.

Phrases

Often you can improve your search by using a phrase instead of separate words. When you enter the words Frank Lloyd Wright, the search engine will look for the words Frank, and/or Lloyd, and/or Wright in the page. While most search engines are intuitive enough to bring you the links with all of the words together first, you may have to wade through a lot of information to get to the one you want.

By using the phrase "Frank Lloyd Wright" in quotation marks, the search engine will only bring you results where all three words appear in that order. Instead of getting lots of pages about Frank's Flowers and Lloyd's Computers, you will have only pages citing the well-known architect Frank Lloyd Wright, and anyone who happens to have the same name.

Wildcards

In some search engines you can enter a wildcard character that will take the place of one or more characters; this is usually represented by an asterisk (*). By entering at least the first three letters of a word followed by the asterisk, you will find sites with words that match the first three letters and anything that may fit in the spaces behind the asterisk.

Continuing with the Frank Lloyd Wright example, say you forgot how to spell Wright. Is it "Write" or "Wright" or "Writte?" Using the wild card in Altavista.com, you can enter the search phrase Frank Lloyd Wri*. This will create a list of sites that include the words "Frank," "Lloyd," and all words starting with "Wri." As mentioned before, the order of the results will be determined by what other users have been looking for when entering similar terms.

Not all search engines use wildcards. When using search engines like Google, Hotbot, and Yahoo, entering Frank Lloyd Wri (without the asterisk) will return the same results as using the wild card. This is called "exact word matching." In addition, you don't need to worry about misspelling in most search engines—usually the spell check provided by the site is enough to correct your error.

Include and Exclude

These commands are represented by a plus (+) or a minus (-) sign before each word in your search list. As you might expect, a plus sign means that the word must be in the search results, while a minus indicates a word that you do not want to appear.

Using the example of looking for information about blizzards we can enter +blizzard +storm -game in Google and information will be retrieved about the winter storm, not the game company. This technique is not perfect however, so you may want to try Boolean operators or move on to the advanced search page.

Boolean (Logical) Operators

Boolean operators are words like "and, or, not, near, before, after, and within." Not all operators will work with all search engines, so you may have to look at the help page to determine which words your search engine uses. Many search engines have opted to use advanced search pages instead of accepting Boolean operators in the main search bar.

Advanced Search

Many search engines have consolidated several of the above options and instead offer an "Advanced Search" page. These pages usually offer an explanation of how each search term is going to be used. In addition, these pages will allow you to restrict your search to certain domain types or to even specific web pages.


Ensure That the Site is Valid

It is important to be very careful surfing the Web for good information. There are numerous web sites on the Internet that are used solely for the purpose of spreading false or misleading information. One example is the Dihydrogen Monoxide homepage. While this site is clearly meant as a spoof, not all such misleading information is so benign.

According to the Drexel University library, you should consider five main points when evaluating a web site: Authority, Accuracy, Objectivity, Currency, and Coverage. Drexel University's online tutorial will guide you through these five points to help you evaluate the quality of information on the web.

Another useful source for evaluating information found on the Web can be located on Johns Hopkins University website.


Cite Your Sources

When writing a research paper, it is necessary to cite all of your sources. As the Internet is increasingly used as a tool for research, it is necessary to create standards of citation for Internet sources. Your school or business may have a specific required format for citing references, or you can check the links below.

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