Technology Tip of the Month

June, 2009: Better Web Searching


Revised version of March, 1996 and November, 2003: Web Search Tools

by Deborah Healey

Everyone, it seems, searches the web for one thing or another. People who are looking for something to buy generally find more or less what they want. If you are looking for reliable academic sources, however, you are much less likely to find what you want. This tech tip will offer a few suggestions for ways to look that may help you find what you want a bit more effectively.

Helpful Vocabulary

General Tips

Sherlock HolmesYou don't need to be Sherlock Holmes to search more effectively. Here are some useful ideas for any Web search:

Choosing a search engine

Google is a good, general-purpose search engine. However, it's not the best choice if you are looking for academic sources or other specialized needs. There are discipline-specific portals, such as Intute's Arts and Humanities Hub; there are librarian-recommended sites, such as Librarians' Internet Index; and there are kid-friendly sites, such as KidsClick! and Ask Kids.

For an overview of the choices, see Choose the Best Search for your Information Needs. It lists a variety of specialized search engines as well as more general-purpose ones like Google.

There are a few search engines that claim to use natural language, where you can ask the question the way that you think about it. For example, I typed in What is the best natural language search engine? rather than "natural language" "search engine" as I would in Google. They don't seem to be very good yet, but your question may be one that the search engine can answer well. Examples of this type of search engine are Hakia and Ask (though Ask seems very ad-heavy).


If you use Google, it helps to read the hints. Google does not use the words AND and NOT as Boolean operators, but it does Boolean searches in its own way.
Here are some useful ideas for Google searches:

Use quotation marks around phrases

I know I said this twice before, but it's one of the most useful things you can do. Remember, this will reduce the number of hits that you get, sometimes quite dramatically. If you are looking for "German vocabulary practice" in quotes, it will NOT necessarily find a website that has German Vocabulary as the title and Practice later in the page. It will first find pages that have all of the words inside the quotes in that exact order. So, "mountains in Oregon" is not the same as "Oregon mountains." If you're not getting what you want, think of another way to say it or delete the quotation marks.

A note about ads...

Just about every search engine has ads. The search engine gets paid by the number of people who click on a link to an advertiser's site. Google lets you know which of the links are ads - they call them "Sponsored Links," and they're often at the top or on the side of the page. Not everyone else does. If you click on an ad, you are more likely to get spam as a result. If you think you'd like to go to an advertised site, the better way is to copy the link (don't click on it) and paste it directly into a new window or new tab. You may still get spam, but it's a bit less likely that way.

Magnifying GlassPractice:

  1. How would you search for information about mountain lions (also known as cougars) in Oregon?

  2. How can you find previews of recent movies?

  3. How would you look for a picture of Michael Jackson?

  4. How would you find information about soccer but not American football?

  5. How can you find out about the weather in Spain?
Try out your searches. Write down the number of titles that were correct (what you were looking for) and incorrect (not really what you wanted) in the first 20.
1. Search terms used:
Number correct/20 _________ Number incorrect/20 _________
2. Search terms used:
Number correct/20 _________ Number incorrect/20 _________
3. Search terms used:
Number correct/20 _________ Number incorrect/20 _________
4. Search terms used:
Number correct/20 _________ Number incorrect/20 _________
5. Search terms used:
Number correct/20 _________ Number incorrect/20 _________

Some suggested answers

See Other tech tips

If you have questions, comments, or for more information, contact Deborah Healey, dhealey AT uoregon DOT edu
Last updated 26 June, 2009