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Researching Online Sources

Researching Online Resources


A Basic Primer for Internet Research

There is a wealth of information available through the Internet, everything from access to online library catalogs, to specialized full text and statistical databases, to web sites and web pages found by using search engines and search directories. That's the good news. The bad news is that no one owns or rules the Internet. This means the information you discover must be evaluated to determine whether it is accurate, unbiased, complete, and up to date.

Let's start with a few basic steps to introduce the ins and outs of Internet research, beginning with a review of the difference between search engines and search directories. A search engine is an online tool that allows you to enter keywords relating to your topic into a form, then click on a button. This causes the program to search through a database of indexed phrases and words in an attempt to match the keywords you entered into the search form. How does the search engine create this database? Most search engines use programs called robots or spiders that crawl through the World Wide Web, find web pages, follow links found on these pages, and add any new information they discover to their database. Some search engine spiders only store information found in the titles of web pages and a specific number of characters found in the text. Others index every word on the page.

To find out more about how a search engine finds and indexes the information contained in its database, consult "Search Tips", "Frequently Asked Questions" or "Help" buttons found on the search engine's main screen.

A good example of a search engine is www.google.com.

Keyword searching is most effective for known-item searches. It is not effective for subject searching--you'll get back an overwhelming number of returns. Here's how keyword searching works. Robots (artificially intelligent agents) search the Internet, noting the text of Web documents, and building databases of words found in those documents. When you make a request, the search software builds its results from a database based on words you input. Results can include people's personal pages, as well as substantive information. All search engines have different programs that use different criteria to build their databases.

A search directory differs from a search engine in that it presents the user a list of subjects broken down into a hierarchy of sub-headings. Someone working for the search directory company has categorized the web sites based on topics and sub-topics. Instead of searching by typing in keywords, you can follow links from broad subject categories to more narrow and specialized topics.

Web directories make excellent resources and, if you know how to use them, will help you find almost anything you want. The people who maintain these directories use special programs to do most of the work. These programs (called spiders, worms, crawlers, or robots) search the Web looking for new and updated items.

There are a number of free, well-maintained directories available on the Web and, in general, there are two ways to use them. First, some directories have home pages organized into categories. To use such a directory, access the home page and choose the category you want. Within that category, there may be subcategories. Thus you can select categories and subcategories until you narrow down your search to find exactly what you want.

Other directories allow you to look for something by using a search engine. To use a search engine, you use your browser to fill in a form in which you describe what you are looking for. Once you submit the form, it is sent to the search engine which looks through the directory, finds what you want (if it exists) and sends back the results.

An example of a search directory is The WWW Virtual Library.

A meta search engine is a tool that allows you to type in one search inquiry which is then used to search the databases of multiple search engines. To learn more about meta search engines, visit this online tutorial.

Some examples of meta search engines include:

This online tutorial discusses all these different types of Internet Search Tools in greater detail.

Strategizing Process

Sometimes Internet research can be a frustrating process. You may not be able to find any information on your topic or, even worse, you may find too much information, much of it totally unrelated to your information needs. The trick to successful web searches is to take the time to think about what it is you want to discover. The following online article, Things To Know Before You Begin Searching, will help you get started.

Here is a Five-Step Search Strategy designed to help you analyze your topic and maximize the effectiveness of Internet research. For more information about search techniques, be sure to visit the sites listed below.

Boolean Searches

Boolean operators, AND, OR and NOT, are used to include or exclude keywords from a search. In other words, if you were trying to find information about cats and dogs, you could structure the following search:

cats AND dogs

This would retrieve any sites that include references to both keywords, cats and dogs.

cats OR dogs

This would retrieve any sites that include a reference to the keyword cats or the keyword dogs, but not necessarily to both in the same site.

cats NOT dogs

This would retrieve any sites that include a reference to the keyword cats but not the keyword dogs. Here is a PDF guide to assist you in constructing boolean searches.

A Few Words About Research

Usually research projects assigned by instructors are designed to gauge a student's ability to find, analyze, organize and present information, including the student's own conclusions or original findings. The steps to performing effective research, both online and using print materials, include the following:

  1. Select and refine your topic.
    • The goal is to limit your subject to a specific aspect of a broader topic.
  2. Determine what information is available and where it can be found.
    • Remember, effective research involves using both print and online resources.
  3. Keep records of what you have read.
    • Index cards and page prints of Internet sources can help you keep track of your sources.
  4. Take notes as you read the information you have gathered.
    • These notes can help you develop your research question or thesis statement.
  5. Construct a thesis or central point for your research project paper or presentation.
    • Be very specific. As you are writing or creating your paper or presentation, each point you make must relate directly to your thesis statement.
  6. Write your paper or create your presentation.
    • On your first draft, freely generate ideas. Then, revise your work, making sure you relate each section of writing or each slide in your presentation to your central point or thesis statement.

This handout will help you select a research topic and start creating a research plan. This handout will assist you as you begin your actual research.

Online Tutorials and Additional Resources