Searching and search engines

Searching as a ‘Game’

Observation has shown that students often see a ‘search’ task as a game – to win the search must be successful, but losing the game simply allows the student to start a new game.  I hope that these few thoughts will help you to develop more complex strategies for the game – and so allow you to ‘win’ more often.

Search and Retrieval concepts

Searching is no more than we have always done by looking up a topic in an index; however, once when you wanted to track something down, you needed to repeat the look-up serially in multiple reference sources – Encyclopaedia Britannica, Whitaker’s Almanack, Statesman’s Yearbook, etc.

Searching the Internet

With the appearance of internet resources – which fairly quickly developed into websites, it became clear that new, appropriate tools would be required to allow access to these resources.  Note that the public search tools provide simple structures – you enter terms to be found anywhere in the source – and are inherently less sophisticated than specialist sources, which may allow for identification of specific data elements, e.g. in a library context to differentiate between author, title and subject.

What is not available for searching

An enormous amount of data is digitised, but is maintained outside of the ‘open’ internet.  This includes public databases, such as library catalogues, which almost always have their own interface to allow searching, but of course that is specific.  There are also many commercial databases, e.g. in law and medicine, which also have their own interfaces, but which will also require registration, and therefore apply fees.  Note that there are also some hybrids, e.g. The Times newspaper, which allows its articles to be indexed, but does not then allow them to be read.

Search engines

Google immediately comes to mind – but you do have a choice!  There are many different options – Bing, Yahoo!, Ask, and a host of smaller enterprises.  Some have better security, and some have added features, such as Puffin.  They do not, however, perform equally well – there are some noticeable differences between Google and Bing, with Bing coming off the poorer usually.

Some tips and pointers

  • Search for what you want.  That sounds like Brexit means Brexit!, but it is somehow human nature to slightly distrust either yourself or the authority when formulating a question.  In the structured index, it was necessary to think like the indexer, but in a search engine you can just put in what you think without elaborating it.
  • ‘Almost’ everything is to be found.  There are some nerds who track down ‘googlewhacks’ – these are searches which have only one result.
  • Phrase searching.  If you are looking for a compound term, it is better to enclose the term in double quote marks, e.g. “tom jones” and this will focus on the combination of those terms in the source (in either order), and not return everything containing ‘just’ tom or ‘just’ jones.  However, search ranking will look at popularity, and so if you want Fielding’s novel, you need to add ‘fielding’ to focus correctly. Another useful application of phrase searching is when you are looking for help with a system problem – when Microsoft or A.N. Other presents you with what appears to be gobbledegook, e.g. “The dependency service does not exist or has been marked for deletion”, it can be very useful to select the whole of that text and copy it into your search engine.  Microsoft has a ‘knowledge base’ which records and explains (perhaps!) common problem situations.
  • Page searching.  There are many pages that will come up as your search results, and when you look, they may in fact be a single webpage containing hundreds of print pages.  It is tempting to give up there and then, but you can refine the search to look for your term within the page.  This varies according to device – in Windows, Control + F brings up a small window to enter your term: it will immediately tell you the number of occurrences (and often this is zero in spite of the initial result!); using an iPad and Safari, simply type in the term (maybe again) – but lok at the bottom of the searcgh suggestions and there will be a separate section ‘On This Page’, and again this will declare the number of occurrences; if using Chrome, click the More Options icon (the three vertical dots on the top right) and select ‘Find in Page’ option in the menu (quite well down). Type in your search words in the field which opens at the top along with the keyboard.
  • Refinement – you can play the iterative game and clear your search and start again if you do not find what you want; or, you can use your initial search as the start point, and refine it – maybe to turn the query in full or in part into a phrase; by adding further terms; or by using the search engine’s hints.
  • Specialist options – Google Books / Shopping /Flights, etc. and Aggregators
    Don’t forget – if using Google – that there are some special search options that are worth checking out.   If doing any historical research, then Google Books is very useful.  There are also a number of aggregator sites that may be useful depending on your specific needs.  Here are just a few:

    • ViaLibri – brings together the world’s booksellers – antiquarian, secondhand, and a few new too.  It has just included eBay books, and has options to search the world’s libraries.
    • SellingAntiques – antique sellers throughout the UK.
    • Discogs – for new and secondhand music (CDs and LPs, etc.) worldwide.
    • Kelkoo – a possible useful shopping compendium.
    • Skyscanner – for flights worldwide.