Search Engines : Researching Your Topic

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Search Engines :

Search engines are Web-based computer utilities that allow you either to access a subject tree or to type your own search terms - whether keywords or subject terms - into the search engine's text box and let the search engine find results for you. Popular search engines include Yahoo! ( AltaVista( and Google ( among many others. You can find a very full listing and more detailed discussions at Search Engine Watch Working your subject through a variety of search engines and a variety of types of search engines will yield many results. Later on in this chapter we will discuss how to broaden those results, how to narrow them and the essential task of making judgments about their reliability.

Two kinds of searches and three kinds of search engines concern us here:

  • Basic searches, advanced searches and general search engines (such as the ones listed above)

  • Meta search engines (which search several search engines at once)

  • Specialty search engines (which search only in one area, such as law, medicine or science)

  • BASIC AND ADVANCED SEARCHES : Most search engines allow both kinds of searches. A basic search involves simply typing your search term or terms into the search engine's text box. Thus, on Alta Vista, a student interested in Pocahontas can type Pocahontas into the text box. Unfortunately, that yields 154,000 hits! Adding more terms to the basic search is one way to narrow the search: “Pocahontas descendants” (you must use the quotation marks to let the computer know you want the words considered as a phrase) brings the number of hits down to 9l.

    You can do narrower or broader searches even better by switching to the advanced search screen which lets you use words like AND, AND NOT and NEAR to refine your searching. Thus you can rule out the references to Disney's movie about Pocahontas by switching from the basic search (Pocahontas) to the advanced search ("Pocahontas AND NOT Disney). The resulting 90,000 hits would still need narrowing, however, so you could also scroll down on the advanced screen and limit your search to items posted within the last month which brings the number of hits to 9. Most search engines have these same capabilities, although they all work a little differently.

    GENERAL SEARCH ENGINES : General search engines such as those listed above compete with each other to cover the biggest part of the Web and to rank their results most effectively. Imagine a search that yields 150 hits - wouldn't it be nice if those hits were presented in something other than random order? Search engines use many sophisticated methods for this ranking, such as ranking by how many other pages link to a particular page (having more links moves the page up the rankings) or by how many people click onto a site when they see it in the search engine results. Some search engines rank highest the pages whose owners have paid a fee to the search engine. Obviously, these ranking systems are often unreliable, maybe even useless, for scholarly research. So, because different general search engines search different parts of the Web and rank their results different ways, it's always a good idea to do your search on several different search engines (Google, Alta Vista and Fast Search for example).

    META SEARCH ENGINES : Wouldn't it be nice if there were search engines that searched multiple search engines for you? Meta search engines do. Ixquick Metasearch (, for example, searches eleven general search engines. A search for "Pocahontas descendants" that yielded 9 results on Alta Vista yields 39 on Ixquick.Other popular metasearch engines include Dogpile ( and Metacrawler (

    SPECIALTY SEARCH ENGINES : Specialty search engines focus on one area - travel, SCience, law, art, population statistics or medicine, for example - and search that area more deeply. If you intend to do research in a particular field for several years (for example, if that field is your major in college), it's well worth knowing if there is a specialty search engine just for that field. You can find a short list of specialty search engines on the Search Engine Watch site and much fuller lists at the ZDNet Search IQ site (

    To continue the section on Make a Research Outline...,

    1. Moving From Keywords to A Subject Search

    2. Reference Tools

    3. Subject Trees

    4. The Library Catalog

    5. Search Engines

    6. Indexes and Databases

    7. Databases and Archives

    Successful Writing Index

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