Web Search Strategies: Basics and Beyond


Web searching can appear deceptively simple. Type just about anything into the search box and the search engine will return results—probably thousands of them. This leads to both frustration and complacency: many users understand themselves to be proficient searchers at the same time that they struggle with large quantities of irrelevant results.

Search engines make available a great variety of tools that can improve search precision. Filtering out all irrelevant results is not, in most cases, an attainable or appropriate goal. A more productive goal—and the focus of the strategies described below—is to increase the concentration of relevant results and promote relevant results closer to the top of the result list.

Search With Phrases

You can narrow your web searches by enclosing phrases in quotation marks.

When you enclose search terms in quotation marks (“”), you are telling the search engine that you want results that include only these exact terms in this exact order.

For example: Try doing a search for students on Mars, without quotation marks, and note the number and type of results you receive. Now run the search again, this time enclosing the phrase in quotation marks: “students on Mars.” The number of results drops dramatically and all of the results include the exact phrase “students on Mars.”

*note: Capitalization is ignored in all major search engines. Searching for Mars is the same as searching for mars.

Add Terms to Narrow Your Search

Every time you add a term to your search, you are narrowing that search. So when you need to limit a web search, try adding more terms.

A good approach when adding terms is to identify each of the main concepts in the topic you are researching and then generate a list of terms associated with those concepts.

For example, suppose you are researching the following question:

Should internet access at public libraries be filtered?

The question has three major components, each of which might suggest possible search terms:

internet libraries filtering
computers public library censor
web   restrict

You’ll discover additional relevant terms once you begin searching, so it’s fine to begin with a small set of search terms.

Note, too, that search engines will often return related results. For example, if you begin your search with the terms web, library, and censor, Google will add the terms internet, libraries, and censorship to your search.

Filter Out Unwanted Terms

If your search produces many unwanted results, try to identify a term common to these unwanted results, and add it to your search with a minus sign (-) in front of it. For example, if you wanted to find a recipe for a salsa without tomatoes, you might use the following search: salsa recipe -tomato -tomatoes.

This search will exclude from your results any page containing the term “tomato” or “tomatoes.”

Open Pages in New Tabs

When you want to check out a promising result without losing track of your original set of search results, hold down your Control key (Command key on a Mac) and then click on the link. This will open the page in a new tab.

View Cached Pages

Remember that search engines do not search in real time: they do not zip around the globe searching for answers to every search query. Instead, they search an index that has been compiled over time in order to determine which “live” web page to direct you to. The index includes the terms that appeared on the page in the past, when the page was last visited by the search engine.

Some sites are indexed more frequently than others. This is why our search results are sometimes disappointing: the information we seek was on the page days, weeks, or months ago when the page was indexed, but the information is no longer appearing on the live page. The search-engine index is out of date.

If a page is returned to you without your search terms, try navigating to the “cached” version of the page, as the information you are seeking may appear on this older/saved version of the page:

web search strategies, writingcommons.org

Quickly Find Your Search Terms on a Page

The fastest way to review a set of search results is to scan the URLs and the “snippets”–the short excerpts located beneath search results, in which your search terms appear boldfaced. Be aware that snippets can sometimes be misleading or confusing.

web search strategies, writingcommons.org

After you click into a result, you can open a search box in your browser and use it to go directly to specific terms on the page. To bring up a search box, hold down the Ctrl key and tap the F key (Cmd-F on a Mac).

Control + F
Command + F (Mac)

An example:

If you do a web search with the terms higher education information literacy synthesize, one of the top-ranking results will be a page on the American Library Association (ALA) website containing the “Framework for Information Literacy for Higher Education” that was adopted by the Association of College & Research Libraries (ACRL) in 2016. The title of the webpage contains four of your search terms: information literacy higher education

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But what about your fifth search term, synthesize?

Rather than scrolling up and down through this document of more than 4000 words hunting for the word “synthesize” (which appears only once), use Ctrl-F (or Cmd-F on a Mac) to open a search field and enter the term “synthesize.”

If you are not seeing the search field, check the top and bottom left and right corners of your screen. At the time of this writing, Chrome places it in the top right and Explorer places it in the top left.

In Firefox it appears in the bottom left:

web search strategies, writingcommons.org

Equivalent tools are available on phones:

iPhone: https://nu.adobeconnect.com/iphone/
Android: https://www.quora.com/How-do-I-do-control-+-f-in-Android-devices

If you search and do not find the word or words that brought you to the page, the most likely explanation is that the page has changed since the search engine last indexed it. See VIEW CACHED PAGES (above) and RETRIEVE PAST DIGITAL CONTENT USING THE INTERNET ARCHIVE (below) for tips on locating old web content.

Google research scientist Daniel Russell has found that using Ctrl-F improves search efficiency by 12%.

Find Recent Information on a Topic

If you want very recent information on a topic, try limiting your search by date, or try searching specifically for News.

For example, suppose you want only recent results on the topic of data privacy. You can restrict the timeframe of your search:

web search strategies, writingcommons.org

Or you can filter your search to display “News” results only:

web search strategies, writingcommons.org

Regular search results for data privacy will emphasize general information and definitions, while a News search for this term will return reports of recent happenings around the issue of data privacy, such as information about recent legislation and court rulings.

Time filters and news filters are located in different places in different search engines but are usually easy to find. The important thing is to know to look for them.

Filter by Domain Name

Distinctions among top-level domain names such as .org and .com have broken down in recent years, but some domain names have retained their original meanings and are helpful to know:

domain description example
.edu university site http://www.nu.edu
.gov government site http://www.senate.gov
.mil military site http://www.army.mil

(The top-level domain .org was originally intended for use by non-profit organizations—and many non-profits continue to use it—but it is now open to anyone.)

You can limit/filter your searches by domain with site:

site:edu   |   site:gov  |   site:mil      (note:  there is no space after the colon)

Example:  If you search for essay help, your results will be dominated by sites that sell essays to students (popularly known as “paper mills” or “cheat sites”). A search for essay help site:edu will primarily return college websites offering writing assistance.

The site: limiter also works with specific websites.

Privacy  site:nytimes.com
(This search will return New York Times articles containing the term “privacy”)

Writing Center  site:nu.edu
(The first result for this search will likely be the web page for the NU Writing Center.)

Predict – and Filter For – a Specific Type of Result

When choosing your search terms, think about the types of terms that are likely to appear on pages of the kind you are seeking. Consider, for example, the difference between the search terms stuffy nose and rhinitis. The meaning of the terms may be roughly the same, but “rhinitis” is far more likely to return specialized results.

The kind of sources you are seeking should factor into your selection of search terms.

This basic search concept—anticipating what your desired content will look like and crafting the search accordingly—can be extended: You can search with greater precision by making predictions about the package in which your desired content is likely to be contained.

For example, if you are seeking data, the kinds of search results you want are likely to be saved in xls (Microsoft Excel spreadsheet file format) or csv (comma separated values file format). You can search for specific file types using the filetype: operator.


texting driving filetype:xls

Remember that operators can also be used to exclude certain types of search results. For example, imagine that a particular search is returning too many results in the form of slide presentations. These results do not represent the amount of detail or depth you are seeking, and clicking through slides is more cumbersome than scrolling through a web page. In such a circumstance, you might add the following to your search to remove powerpoint results:

-filetype:ppt -filetype:pptx

Along the same lines, you might reflect on whether your desired content is likely to appear in a short format or a longer format. For example, if you are searching YouTube for a substantial lecture on a topic, there is a good chance the type of video file you are seeking will run longer than 20 minutes. To filter for longer content, you can click on Filters and from the Duration options select Long (20~ minutes):

web search strategies, writingcommons.org

Retrieve Past Digital Content Using the Internet Archive

We often talk about digital content as permanent. Consider, for example, this recent headline: “Thanks To Facebook Your Horrible Memories Will Never Go Away.”

But as users we know that that the digital realm is in a constant state of flux. Things sometimes do disappear. The Internet Archive, a non-profit organization founded in 1996, seeks to preserve past web content.

When you are searching for older content that is no longer available on the original site and too old to be part of a search engine’s cache, you can try searching with the Internet Archive’s “Wayback Machine.”

For example, suppose you want to see what the website Television Without Pity looked like before 2007 when it was purchased by NBC. Go to the Internet Archive (http://www.archive.org) and enter the URL http://www.televisionwithoutpity.com into the search box of the “Wayback Machine”:

web search strategies, writingcommons.org

The Wayback Machine provides an overview of years and dates included in the archive for televisionwithoutpity.com:

web search strategies, writingcommons.org

Clicking on a specific date will take you to a view of the Television Without Pity site on that day.

Explore More Search Tools

Most search engines offer advanced search options.

You will find Google’s “Advanced Search” page at http://www.google.com/advanced_search or under “Settings”:

web search strategies, writingcommons.org

StartPage provides an Advanced search link on its home page:

web search strategies, writingcommons.org

Search engines routinely change the location of Advanced search. The important thing is to know that advanced search tools exist and to sniff around for them when the search engine interface makes them hard to find.

Distinguish Between Non-Paid Search Results and Advertisements

Search engines such as Google and Bing make money by selling targeted ads. Effective web searchers are alert to the presence of ads and know how to distinguish them from non-paid search results.

Federal regulations in the United States require that advertisements be distinguished “clearly and prominently” from non-paid search results. Search engine companies have interpreted this direction in different ways, with the result that paid search results are displayed differently in different search environments. An additional challenge for users is the frequency with which search engine companies change the visual presentation of advertisements.

When viewing a set of search results, be alert to the presence of targeted ads, which will be indicated with terms such as Ad, Sponsored, or Promoted.

Consider the set of search results below. How quickly are you able to identify the paid search result?

paid search result image

The paid search result (the last one in the list, in which the word “Ad” appears) is not the only commercial result, but it is the result that the search engine is returning as part of a paid advertising agreement.

We may debate the extent to which we can or ought to tune out advertising, but few would question the value of being able to recognize advertising and distinguish it from other types of content.

Learn More

Here are some resources to check out in order to learn more search strategies and stay informed about changes:

Inside Search
Official Google search blog

Search ReSearch
Blog of Google search research scientist Daniel M. Russell

Phil Bradley’s weblog
Librarian’s blog on internet searching

Mashable – Google Search
Page on the popular technology blog Mashable that brings together news items related to Google search