Search the Web


To locate information on the Open Web, you can use any one of a number of search engines or search directories.

Most search engines allow for simple keyword searches just like the library catalog. Some allow the use of Boolean search terms to help limit or extend your search (terms such as AND, OR, and NOT). Most search engines offer help with advanced search capabilities, so be sure to read the help file for the particular search engine you are using. Remember, too, that different search engines search the web differently, so if you are not happy with the results you receive, try another search engine.

The following table, compiled by Ilene Frank, offers numerous tips for searching.

Tips on Internet Searching

  • Jacques Louis David: How does your favorite search tool handle strings of terms? Will it include all terms (i.e. AND the terms together)? Will it find any of the terms (i.e. OR the terms)? Take a look at the HELP screens. “Jacques Louis David.” Many search tools use quotation marks to search terms as a phrase. Some have a dropbox that allow you to “search for a phrase” or “use all the terms.” HotBot and Fast Search (web) both have “the exact phrase” choice in the search dropbox.
  • knights +Crusades: Some search tools use the + sign to indicate that all terms be included in the search. It “ANDS” the terms. This doesn’t mean that the terms have to be next to each other. +knights -Crusades Some search tools use a minus sign to ensure that a term is not included in your search. This search would mean find “knights AND NOT Crusades.” Do check HELP screens on this one. Altavista, for example, likes peanut AND NOT butter.
  • AIDS: (i.e. capitalization may count!) Some search tools are case sensitive. Putting in AIDS may retrieve the disease rather than every web page anywhere that uses the word “aids.” The search tool Ixquick likes case sensitivity. The HELP page for Altavista recommends using lower-case. (ex: education NEAR vocational). Some search tools allow a search string that indicates that the words are near each other—but not necessarily next to each other. We might want to use “vocational education” or the somewhat broader search using the near feature.
  • pets and (dogs or cats): Some search tools may allow for algebraic expressions of Boolean search strings. This is a fancy way of saying see if you remember your ninth-grade math classes where your teacher explained how to nest expressions. If using this type of search tool, you can search with wildcards (as in “wom*n”). See if your search tool allows for wildcards (i.e. some sign used to stand for any letter). Sometimes it’s a question mark. Sometimes it’s an aesterik. The term “wom*n” should retrieve “women” or “woman”.

Some Other Tips:

    1. Try natural language searching, for example, “Why is the sky blue?” Some search tools such as like to deal with natural language queries.
    2. Try to think of synonyms. Are those people “elderly” or “aged” or “senior citizens” or…?
    3. Remember to consider alternate spellings–especially British spellings. Is it THEATER or THEATRE?
    4. Consider using foreign terms and phrases.
    5. Or… conversely, look for language filters that may help eliminate web pages in languages you can’t read.

    Web Site Tutorials on Boolean Searching

    Search directories offer a structured way to search the web based on categories of information. Generally, search directories will only list sites that they have categorized, so they may not return as many results, but often search directories are the quickest way to find information on a particular topic when keyword searching fails (or offers too much information). If you are searching for the home page for a particular university, for example, you could follow Yahoo’s directory structure: Education / Higher Education / Colleges and Universities / United States. There you will find an alphabetical listing of approximately 1500 colleges and universities in the United States.

    Your library home page may offer links to additional web-based resources, including search engines or directories, sites that compile lists of links to reliable resources, online reference materials such as encyclopedias or dictionaries, and many more resources. For more information, check with your reference librarian.

    The Open Web provides up-to-the-minute information on a wide variety of topics. Of course, not all of the information you find online is current or authoritative—almost anyone with the necessary hardware, software, and a little know-how can publish information online. (Although it’s also necessary to be critical of print sources, especially documents published by obscure presses, when it comes to reading on the web, you need to be especially discerning.)

    Regrettably, different databases employ different search terms. Every discipline has its own lingo. So, for example, there’s a thesaurus of terms for ERIC (education database); there’s a thesaurus of terms for Psychological Abstracts (online as PsycINFO); there’s a set of descriptors for ABI/INFORM (which is a business resource), and so on.


    “Search the Web” was written by Joseph M. Moxley