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Searching the Internet


Information has become one of the most important resources in the world today. The amount of information increases in an exponential manner each year and people are becoming crippled by its volume. The need to develop effective information searching strategies and techniques has become essential. This document discusses fundamental concepts related to searching for information. It does not matter whether you are looking up a name in a phone book, searching through the bookshelves at a public library, or using computer software to find information on the Internet; the fundamental concepts involved in searching are basically the same.

Searching focuses on a specific goal and should not be confused with browsing, which is a non-focused activity. Browsing is an activity based on a faith in serendipity (the accidental acquisition of something beneficial). Although it often results in the discovery of important information, it is not an efficient means of finding it. Browsing involves many of the same concepts as searching, but will not be discussed here.

Basic Concepts:

Each search for information involves some common considerations. Each of these will be discussed in detail below, but in general they are:

  1. Define your "target", which is the information that you are seeking. Are you looking for a single piece of information? Or are you searching for as much information as possible on a given topic? Any information that you already have about the target can serve as a "seed" for the search. Each item of data that is found as the result of a search is called a hit.
  2. Decide on your approach to the search. The two most common approaches are called "top-down" and "bottom-up". These will be discussed below, but usually depend on whether the seed is general or specific, respectively.
  3. Pick a suitable starting point. Find an index such as a telephone directory or a search tool such as the phone company's Directory Assistance service with a proven record of usefulness with respect to the target information. Each search method has its own strengths and weaknesses, and some search tools are more effective for one search method than for another. Some search tools search a large collection of resources, others search very limited ones. Some tools are faster than others. Some are simple, other sophisticated and complex. All of them provide instructions. Read them!
  4. Decide on the desired format for the results (hits) of your search. How do you want them presented? Do you want a summary or a detailed list? Should the list be sorted in some way? Should the hits be analyzed or ranked with respect to relevance to your search?

Defining a Search Target:

A target is the information that you are seeking. Information that you already have about the target (the seed) can be used to seed the search. Computer programs typically ask for seed information by asking for a "search phrase" or "search string". Some programs limit your entry to a simple keyword that the program must match to stored data. Others allow you to restrict or broaden a search through the use of Boolean operators such as AND, OR, or NOT. Some newer programs even allow you to use natural language (similar to English) when entering a search phrase. Instead of entering "Vero AND Beach" to search for information about Vero Beach, one could simply type something like "Tell me about Vero Beach." Most programs are not this intelligent yet.

Each item of data that is found as the result of a search is called a hit. If you are looking for someone in the telephone directory with the name William Johnson, then the name William Johnson is the target. Either the word "William" or the word "Johnson" (or both) could be used to seed the search. The more specific the seed information, the more likely you are to get the exact hits that you seek. If your search turns up three listings for people with that name, then your search returned three hits. Usually a search seed of just "Johnson" would result in many more hits than "William Johnson".

The number of hits that you get for a search can be greatly affected by the wording that you use for your search phrase. Consideration must be given to the following:

Search Approaches:

When you start a search with very general information and then focus in on more and more specific items, you are using a "top-down" search method. For example, if you were looking for a the phone number of a neurosurgeon, you might start by looking in the Yellow Pages for "physicians", then "surgeons", then "neurosurgeon", and finally specific individuals. If you already knew the name of the specific surgeon and called directory assistance, you would be using a "bottom-up" search approach. Browsing also uses the top-down approach.

Whenever you start with general or vague seed information and use it to find more and more specific information, you are using the top-down approach. When you have very specific information as your seed, you will most likely use the bottom-up approach.

Starting Points:

The choice of a starting point for your search will depend on which approach you have chosen. If you are doing a top-down search, you should look for a good directory, list, or table of contents. Sometimes these resources are referred to as indices (or indexes), but an index will only work for a top-down search if it has been organized in a hierarchical manner (like an outline). Most computer operating systems such as DOS or Windows have programs that allow users to look through directories of files. These files are organized in a hierarchy of directories and sub-directories. The job of file management software is to make it easy for the user to navigate these directories and find the files.

If you plan to perform a bottom-up search from a specific seed, then you should find a good a search engine. Each search tool is unique, so don't believe that learning one has taught you all of them. Each has its own strengths and weaknesses, so you should try a few. Most computer programs that manage large amounts of data, such as database management software, provide powerful search facilities to allow users to search for very specific items of data within enormous files.

Result Formats:

The results of a search could appear in many different formats. They could appear as a detailed list, or they could appear as a summary list. Each item found might appear on its own sheet of paper, or all items might be grouped in a single list. Results could be sorted alphabetically, or by date, or size, etc. The hits might be ranked with respect to relevance to your search. For example, if you search using the seed information of "William Michael Johnson", the search tool might list the hits on items containing all three names first, and then items containing only two of the three names next, and so on. Computer software will often allow you many options for formatting your output.

Internet Search Tools:

One good way to practice with different search tools is on the Internet. Many people incorrectly refer to all Internet search tools as "search engines". A search engine allows users to provide specific seeds for the performance of a "bottom-up" (or targeted) search. These bottom-up search tools should not be confused with "top-down" (menu-oriented) search tools such as the popular service named "Excite" (which is an Internet Web directory - a.k.a. Web guide). A Web directory provides a nice alphabetically organized subject outline for top-down searching. Another form of top-down search resource is know as a "Virtual Library". These offer a more scrutinized or vetted list/menu of search topics and results. Most Internet search tools now offer both bottom-up and top-down approaches. For example, if you look at the Excite Web site, you will see that they offer both a search engine and a Web directory.

The home page of the Excite Web site can be found at the URL (Web address):

     [http://www.excite.com/]

You should also look at some Virtual Libraries such as those listed at the URL (Web address):

     [http://www.similarsitesearch.com/alternatives-to/dmoz.org]

You can find a wide variety of information on Internet Search tools by looking at these other sites:

http://www.gibsonr.com/classes/internet/search.html
[http://searchenginewatch.com/]

 

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