EQUAL-OPPORTUNITY ANNOYANCE (telophase) wrote in little_details,

Search engine tips

Here are some tips for using search engines that I wrote up with the blessings of kutsuwamushi. It should help those whose Google-fu is weak, and maybe remind those whose Google-fu is strong of some things they could try in addition to their usual methods.

If anyone else has any more tips, feel free to comment with them. I know I'm always looking for more. (ETA: There's a lot more good tips showing up in the comments, so don't forget to read them.)

Search Engine Strategies

I'm an I.T. librarian (in other words, a library webmaster) who also does reference work in an academic library and I've recently been doing some usability testing of our site in preparation for a big overhaul. This means I've gotten to sit and watch some people try to use our website, the library catalog, and the databases we're subscribed to in order to find the answers to a series of questions.

I've been surprised to find that even the students who say they are tenacious searchers who won't give up before they find the answer don't use what I would call thorough searches. They search broadly, not deeply, and if a site hasn't given them the answer within a very few clicks, or within one page of results, they give up and try the same search in a different site or search engine or database instead of adapting their search.

So here's a few things that I've come up to help you improve your Google-fu after watching this process:

  1. The #1 tip you can use to improve your search engine results is: use synonyms. Generate as many different keywords as you can think of. Dictionaries and thesauri are good for this (www.dictionary.com and www.thesaurus.com are available online). It is not a given that the information you are looking for contains the words that you use when you think about it.

    For example: in the study I mentioned above, one of the questions (that I took from another study I read about last fall) is: "Find an article on the effects of teen smoking." If you drop teen smoking into an article database, as so far every single person I've tested has done, you will find very little information, because academic and professional writers don't use the terms teen or smoking very much. If you put in the terms adolescent and tobacco, however, you get a lot of results.

    Another example - I just typed search engine strategies into Google, and the results were mostly useless to me because there's a big conference about creating search engines called Search Engine Strategies, and the results were full of news articles and conference reports on it. Changing to how to use search engines produced results that were far more relevant.

  2. Step away from the search engine for a bit and try to define the question you really want answered. When you go to a reference librarian and ask a question, usually he or she will ask you a few more questions. This is called a reference interview and is done in order to narrow down and pinpoint the question that you need, as opposed to the question you asked to be answered, because they're often not exactly the same thing.

    If you ask for information on parliamentary procedure and the librarian doesn't ask you anything, you'll end up with a copy of Robert's Rules of Order. But what if you were really needing to know was how the English Parliament conducted its business? Robert's Rules of Order is completely the wrong thing.

    That's a rather obvious example, but the same sort of thing that I see happen a lot - students come up to me during my stints at at the Ref desk frustrated because they can't find the information they're looking for. When I ask them questions about what they're looking for and why they need it, it turns out that they haven't really defined the question, and so the search terms they use give them answers to completely different questions. When I was in library school, I shadowed a reference librarian for a day. A patron came up and asked for books on Indian clothing. A few questions later, the librarian figured out that what the patron wanted was Seminole quilting patterns. The woman had assumed that the Seminole pattern was based off of a Seminole Indian design and that she'd find it in books on Seminole clothing, but a book of quilting patterns was what she really needed.

  3. Narrow your search. Sometimes you don't find what you're looking for because you're not looking for terms that pinpoint the information you need. Searching for the Third Watch episode "A Night at the Opera" by using night at the opera will give you lots of hits for the Marx Brothers movie A Night at the Opera and the Queen album of the same name. Adding the word watch to the search terms, so you're looking for night at the opera watch, narrows the results down to pages that have the word "watch" on them, and lots of pages on Third Watch show up.

  4. Conversely, broaden your search. Maybe your terms are too precise, and you'd do better to find some general ones. I've seen a student search for China water gardens in a library catalog and give up in frustration, declaring that there wasn't any information on them. There was plenty of information: it's just that it was contained in books about Chinese gardens in general, and the term water didn't appear in the books' catalog records.

  5. Silly as this may seem, are you spelling the terms correctly? A librarian friend of mine has a story of a student looking for information on animal cruelty, but getting frustrated at the lack of it because, as he found out, the terms were misspelled as aminal cruiltiy. That's an extreme example, but a typoed letter can throw off your results. Also, remember that many words are spelled differently in different dialects. British English uses aluminium while American English uses aluminum to refer to the same metal. If you need information about the time where alumin(i)um was considered a precious metal, you might want to search using both variants.

  6. Also, check your plurals. Are you searching for a term by using its plural, when the pages with the information on it use its singular form? That extra "s" may be stopping you from finding it.

  7. Consider the logic of what you're looking for. The same student with the spelling problem had a very hard time figuring out that while anti animal cruelty would get lots of information about the arguments against animal cruelty, pro animal cruelty wasn't going to get anything useful, because nobody in their right mind is going to say "Yes, I'm pro animal cruelty!" in a debate. "Pro animal testing" was a lot more likely to get results.

  8. Learn Boolean searching. With Boolean searching, which many search engines including Google uses, you can force certain terms to appear with a + sign or the word AND, and force other terms not to appear with a - sign or the word NOT. Quotation marks cause the search engine to look for a full phrase, not just separate words.

    opera will get you results about the Opera Web browser, and a lot of opera houses.

    opera -web gives results that do not include the word "web," so the Opera browser page vanishes from the results and mostly opera houses are left.

    opera +web gives you lots of results about the Opera web browser, and very few about the art of opera.

    "opera web mail" gives you results with pages about the Opera webmail service.

  9. Do not be afraid to dig deep. This is another big problem that every single person in my study has had. Users don't like to click very far away from the site they're on, probably due to fear of getting lost. As a result, lots of information goes unfound. My goal for the library's web site is to redesign it so all information can be found within two clicks from the home page, because all of my subjects have given up before drilling down more than three clicks, but very few sites follow that rule and hide information behind lots of clicks.

    If you're afraid of getting lost, right-click and open a new window with the link (or if you use Firefox, right-click and open a new tab). Search as much as you want in that, then close that window or tab and your original page is still there.

    Do not fear going deep into Google page results. The info you're looking for may not be within the first two pages of results, but it might be there in the fourth or fifth or sixth page. It gets less likely the deeper you go, of course, but unless you're on a slow Internet connection, there's no harm in digging deeper.

  10. Remember that there are more databases than Google. Most of the best one are, of course, for-pay, but many libraries have access to them. And libraries often set up consortia, or groups, to pay for databases. For example, Texas has a program called TexShare and almost all local libraries participate in it. If you are a Texas resident and go to your local library and ask for a TexShare card, you can use that card to access a number of article and statistical databases online, as well as go into other libraries - the academic library I work at allows TexShare members to check books out, even if they're not affiliated with the school. Ask your local library what databases they subscribe to, and if you've got a similar program.

  11. Imagine what your desired result will look like. Will it probably contain a certain phrase? Try including that phrase in your search if you want to narrow down your results. (from ladybirdsleeps)

  12. Try going with what you know. For example, if you need to know the date that a particular style of eyebrow was used in Japan but can't find information on the eyebrows themselves, you may be able to find the date by searching for fashions in general and then matching them to your picture. If that doesn't answer your question, it still may lead you to new keywords to try. (from ladybirdsleeps)

  13. And one last tip; although it doesn't relate directly to finding information, it's certainly quite useful to know. From selenite: Beware acronyms. For example, when researching terrorism, search for the "Moro Islamic Liberation Front" NOT "MILF".

    Trust me.

    Especially at work.

  14. Once you've been through as much of the above as you can and decide to post to little_details, please explain what you've already tried and already found. Otherwise, what usually happens is that people post saying "Did you try [obvious search term]?" and you have to reply telling them yes, you already have. That just wastes both your time and the commenter's (and tends to lead to irate, snippy replies on both sides). I can't tell you the number of times at the reference desk I've spent some time searching for information, only to have the student tell me they already tried that term/phrase/database. The more information you can give me about what you've tried and what you've found, and how it does and does not meet your needs, the more quickly and more accurately I can answer your question.

P.S. The eyebrows in question in one of the tips are called "moth wings," and they were in fashion for court women during the Heian era Japan, approximately 1000 years ago. They also blacked their teeth. See! You learned something interesting from sticking it out to the end!
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