Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Search School: Use Your Results

Searching for information online presents a problem for most people. Unless you have a good grasp on the information you are looking for already, it can be difficult to come up with some good search terms that eliminate irrelevant pages and brings the most specific and useful information to the first page of search results.

The Traditional Approach
The traditional method of dealing with this problem (pre search engine) is to read an article about your topic in an encyclopedia or other reference book. These types of articles give you a short, fact filled overview of the topic, giving you some good background knowledge of your topic. Libraries have many of the same materials in their research databases, most of them accessible from your computer at home. This is probably still the best method for getting started with your search, but it is not always realistic for all situations.

An Alternative Method
An alternative method requires you to be a bit of an information detective. You will have to look for clues to help you narrow your search as you go. When using this approach, you have to skim your search results for
  1. page titles 
  2. page snippets or excerpts
  3. page URLs.
When you find a potentially useful website, you have to open and skim the page for:
  1. useful keywords 
  2. and useful facts to build on your search.
You goal is to get a better understanding of your topic and refine your search based on what you learn.

Let's pretend that you have to do a research project on the Civil War. Your teacher has assigned you Andersonville as a topic. You don't know what this is because you didn't read the assigned textbook chapter and you forgot the book in your locker. Shame on you! Let's see if we can salvage the situation.

You go to Google and put Andersonville in the search box.

Your first job is to find out some basic information about your topic. If you skim the results on the first page, you will see there are results about the Andersonville neighborhood in Chicago, as well as historical information about a Civil War Historical site.

To find this information, I scanned:
  1. the blue page titles and the green URLs (web addresses)
  2. the web page excerpts beneath the titles.
The page titles are given by the person who created the page. The excerpts are selected by Google to show where your keyword shows up in the page in context.

Notice that there are three pages in a row that mention the Civil War in the description and/or title. If I click on these, I find some basic information that will help me learn a little more and expand or narrow my search.

Here are few things that I learned:
  • Andersonville was a confederate prisoner of war camp during the civil war.
  • It was officially known as Camp Sumter.
  • Though it only operated for about 15 months, over 13,000 Union prisoners died of malnutrition, exposure and diseases. This seems to be why it is so famous.
  • It was located in Georgia.
This information can help me narrow or expand the results. I know that any information that is not about the civil war prisoner of war camp in Georgia.

My original search had 893,000 results with a lot of irrelevant information. I might revise my Google search to:

Andersonville "civil war" camp Georgia


"Camp Sumter" Georgia "civil war"

The first revision expanded the search to 7,530,000 results, but the results in the first several pages all appear relevant to the search. The second gave us some different results with only 27,400 results.

As I continue to read and collect web pages on the topic, I will have to decide whether to change my search terms to look for specific aspects of my topic.

For example, through my reading, I found that General Sherman's march through Atlanta helped to bring about the closing of the prison. If I wanted to find out more about Sherman's role, I might change my search:

Andersonville "civil war" camp Sherman

I would continue this cycle as I read and assimilate new information about the topic. Along the way, I am continually collecting new search terms and then changing the search so that can missing information about my topic.

This is the last Search School post in this series on crafting a better search. Please check out the other posts in the series if you haven't already.

All Search School Posts So Far

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