Finding Information

This page provides general information about search engines and search strategies. Two possible activities are listed at the end to help the participants gain experience searching.


Basic browser skills
An inquisitive mind


To increase proficiency in finding relevant Internet resources


Searching and locating just the right information or link is the key. . . Successful searching for information on the Internet requires creativity, patience, and perseverance.

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The Internet has a huge amount of information on a large variety of topics. Finding what you want on the Internet can be like looking for a needle in a haystack. Since the Internet is a work-in-progress by many people at many times, no one person or group was in charge of making resources uniform and easy to index. It is possible to systematically search for (and find) information on many specific topics, rather than finding information "by accident." Online search tools help you track down whatever it is you're looking for.

Remember that you may be accessing information thousands of miles away. So be patient—but be creative in your search strategy if you need to be.

Going Directly to Related Sites

One way to find information without doing a search on content is to think about sites likely to have information related to your topic, perhaps government or commercial sites. Word of mouth "referrals" are not to be discounted here, especially if your friends and colleagues have similar interests to yours.

The following trick of "guessing the URL" is useful when searching, but also provides some understanding of the makeup of an URL. Of course, it does not work for every company, etc.

A Trick: If you are looking for a well-known large company or government agency, you can sometimes go to their Web site directly by using a "standard" Web name for them. You can use the OPEN button and enter something like


where shortname is their company/agency abbreviation (examples: att, ibm, apple, uchicago, fnal, nsf), and type is the type of institution they are.

Some common types are:

edu - educational institution
com - commercial and/or personal site
net - recommended for companies involved in Internet infrastructure
gov - government agency
org - not-for-profit organization
mil - military

So,, and all work, and no searching was required.

SHORT ACTIVITY: Think of a commercial company, government site, or educational institution that might have information about your topic (and that you know the abbreviation for). Try using OPEN and typing in your "educated guess" for their Web server address. (If you cannot find any sites related to your topic this way, try locating the McDonald's using this technique, just to test it out.)

If you are fortunate, someone at one of these related sites may have already made a list of links related to the topic you are interested in. So by all means, take advantage of any resource links you may find and explore them to see if they are useful to you. Add them to your bookmark list if they are.

Keep in mind though, that even if such a topic list does exist, it may not be up to date, or the author may not have searched through some major sources of information that are accessible to you. So it frequently is still worthwhile to do some digging on your own.

WWW Catalogs

Another way to find information is to browse through catalogs of World Wide Web information arranged by category.

Different catalog organizations are more suited to different goals. For instance, if you are looking for information about Hispanic culture, it may be easiest to look for Spain or a Latin American country in a catalog organized by geographical location. If you are looking for product information, a commercial company index might be your best bet. For information about something in the area of chemistry or biology, a subject catalog might be the way to start.

Try to find some information on your topic using one or more of the catalogs included on these pages.

Searching Tools

There are many programs on the Internet that let you search the Internet. There are several different kinds of programs that do this. First off, the programs may differ in whether they search the full text of Internet documents (i.e., all the words on the page) for keywords, or whether they search only document title, header, and/or description information.

Secondly, the programs may differ in how they get the information. Some programs get information by scanning lists of WWW server announcements or descriptions of servers in catalogs. These are called list-based searching programs. This method is not as "thorough" as a full-text search.

Other searching programs get their information by wandering through Internet documents, following links, and indexing keywords found. Once they find a document, they can then visit links that appear in that document, and then every link that appears in those documents, . . . and so on. (In practice, they have to stop following links at some point, but you get the idea.) These programs are referred to as Spiders and Robots and Worms.

These indices are almost always created before you do your search. So you are searching a pre-made index or database when you do your search. In other words, the searching program does not go out and search the Web in response to your search. The searching program lets you search through the information it has already gathered.

One of the things you may want to notice about a searching program is when it last gathered information from the Web. If the searching program gathered information three months ago, then you know it won't have information from pages that have been written in the last three months. It also won't have updated information from pages that have been modified in the last three months. This is actually a long time as far as Web pages are concerned!

Thirdly, programs differ in which information services they search (WWW, Gopher, . . .). Several of the searching programs now index HTTP, Gopher, and FTP resources.

Here are some of the more common search tools:

AltavistaWebcrawler Excite

Lycos Infoseek    HotBot

Northern Light Google


Some search engines designed for kids:



Meta-Search Engines

There are now some "meta" search engines that allow you to search several search engines at the same time with one query. A few common ones are listed below.

The following links evaluate various searching tools and give valuable hints as to the "inner workings" of the search engines.

Comparing Search Tools

Since there are so many search tools available, which one is the best for current search needs? People develop preferences based upon the structure of the search tool and a person's search style. The following links evaluate various searching tools and give valuable hints as to the "inner workings" of the search engines. Note that which search tool is "best" can be a frequently changing target.

Searching Instructions and Hints

Click on the search program link and enter the keyword you want to search for into the given text entry field. Usually you'll have to click on a Submit or Do Search or Search button to get the search to execute. Occasionally, just pressing return will start the search.

Each of these programs was written by a different person, so (unfortunately) they all have different instructions for use. There are further instructions for each search program. (Look for the word Help somewhere on the page to find the instructions.) You will probably not need to look at the instructions if you are just doing a one-word search. But if you want to try an AND or an OR, etc. you will probably have to read the information provided. You may need to use an AND or an OR to narrow down your search at some point.

General Hints

  1. Think about the best place to start your search.
  2. Try the easiest things first.
  3. Use "advanced search" options where available.
  4. Use FIND to go through large pages. (Search results too!)
  5. Use the form specifically designed for each search tool.
  6. Look for hints in a URL before selecting it.
  7. Look for others' pages with lists of related links and save the URL.
  8. Learn more complicated queries for search engines you use frequently.
  9. Read sections of some related pages to determine if you are using the best terminology for your search.

Selecting Keywords

  1. Think about the best keyword for your search. Try synonyms.
  2. Try the "root" or "stem" of the words instead of the full word; i.e., exclude prefixes, suffixes, and plurals.
  3. Try the opposite of a keyword.
  4. Add or remove keywords from your search in order to get fewer or more results.
  5. Try more specific or more generalized keywords.
  6. Try an "AND" of keywords to narrow down your search or an "OR" of keywords to broaden your search. Read the help for your searching tool to do this.
  7. Check whether your search is "case sensitive." Most of the searches are case insensitive by default. The term case insensitive means that the capitalization of the words are ignored.

    For example: A case insensitive search for "Education" will find documents that contain "Education," "education," "EDUCATION," or any other variation of the capitalization of that word. A case sensitive search for "Education" will find only the documents that contain the exact word, "Education."

What to Do When You Find a Busy or Broken Link

  1. Check the link for obvious mistakes.
  2. Backtrack to previous folders on the same Web server by deleting the later parts of the URL one section at a time. Once you find a Web page that is still there, you can frequently find what you were looking for from that page.
  3. If the error is something like "permission denied," you may not have permission to access the given page.
  4. Try the link again in a few minutes, the next day or the next week.
  5. Try alternate locations for the same services (e.g., mirror sites, alternate machines for search engines).
  6. Try a different service or tool.
  7. Send e-mail to the maintainer of the site about the bad link.

Two activities are included for possible use at this point. The facilitator can choose to use one or both of the activities to help the participants gain experience searching. The first activity will provide more experience searching, while the second will provide more of a comparison between search engines. The second activity could be more relevant to their possible project ideas.

Activity #1

This is a test . . . only a test. If it had been a true emergency, you would have been told to turn to . . .

Find the answers to the following questions. Document your strategy (on paper or as a word-processed document), keywords used, search engine used, and results for each question. You should use all of the search engines listed above at some point, for at least one question.

  1. Find the unemployment rate for last January.
  2. Find information about the Southern Poverty Law Center (a political lobbyist group).
  3. You sometimes get a message saying you have a JavaScript error when using your browser. Find out what it is and why that message appears.
  4. Find recipes for Passover or Easter.
  5. Find the poem, Fancy Dive, by Shel Silverstein.
  6. Find an organization that will help you find information about Huntington's syndrome.
  7. Find some information on MP3 players.
  8. Find an HTML tag that would allow you to change the color of one sentence in a paragraph.

Discuss or post your strategy and answers as indicated.

This search activity offers a good opportunity for a face-to-face discussion of the strategies used. Participants will have chosen several different terms or keywords to search.

Remember to add a due date to the assignment page if this is an activity chosen.

Activity #2

Choose a topic relevant to your project idea(s) and search for information and links on that topic. Use the same keyword(s) with at least two of the search engines. Make a note of the number and the quality of the "hits" you located. Change your search strategy by changing your search keyword(s). Again note the number and the quality of the "hits" from this search.

What to post: Post comments on your searches and your preferences on search tools.

Where to post: Post your responses as indicated by your facilitator or as indicated on your course assignment sheet.

Remember to add a due date to the assignment page if this is an activity chosen.

Participants are likely to form preferences for one or two search engines. The more experience they gain searching, the more successful they will become. Trying different tools and different strategies should be encouraged.


Try some of these tools at home to see which one(s) you prefer.

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