By Gordon Rugg
So how do you actually do an online search?
The most common approach is to type 2.4 words into Google, with 14% of those words spelled wrong, and 6% of those words being about sex. That isn’t exactly the most inspiringly professional or efficient way of operating.
A more professional and efficient way of operating is as follows:
- Read the manual and learn how to get the most out of the software you’re using (e.g. by using the “advanced search” features)
- Read some articles about best practice in online search
- Ask your friendly librarian for help and advice
When online search is involved, I do all of those things myself, and very useful they are too.
Many of my previous articles have been about the unwritten craft skills involved in some aspect of research. With online search, for a change, there’s plenty of readily available information about the craft skills, so I’m not planning to re-cover ground that’s already been covered well by other people. Instead, I’ll give some examples of what those craft skills and of how they can help make your online searches easier and better. I’ve also included some keywords that should help you find useful tutorial articles quickly and easily.
Using rare words as keywords
The precise details of how commercial search engines work are often closely guarded secrets. However, one common feature is that search engines use an inverse frequency weighting approach to decide what to show you first. In brief, this means that rare words are given a higher weighting than common words. This knowledge can help you get a better proportion of relevant hits when you do a search.
Here’s an example. Suppose that your lecturer has advised you to read up on Goffman’s dramaturgical metaphor for how people behave; suppose also that your notes mention front and back versions.
If you search with Google for front and back versions because they’re more familiar terms, you’ll get a lot of hits, but none of the hits on the first five pages will be relevant articles about Goffman. As you might imagine, there are a lot of other contexts where those words appear, because they’re very common words.
If you search instead for dramaturgical metaphor you’ll start getting relevant hits on the first page. Rare, relevant words, and technical terms, are your friend in this context.
Using authors’ names as keywords
A variant on the theme above is to include the name of a relevant researcher among your keywords. If you add Goffman to front and back versions then you get lots of highly relevant hits right from the start.
This is why lecturers will usually use a schema for mentioning relevant concepts which consists of the name of the relevant key researcher, the technical term for the concept, and a plain English explanation of the concept so you understand what it’s about, and have a better chance of remembering it. With those pieces of information, you will usually be able to track down the relevant literature pretty quickly.
Using inverted commas
Most search engines give you different results if you surround two or more words with inverted commas. For instance, if you’re looking for articles about systems analysis within computing, then:
“systems analysis” with inverts gets you just under 2,000,000 hits on Google
systems analysis gets you just under 72,000,000 hits on Google
Why the difference of 70 million? Because the inverts tell the search engine to look for those two words together as a pair. Without the inverts, the search engine will count anything as a hit that contains one or both of those words, regardless of whether they’re anywhere near each other; most of those hits will be irrelevant.
Using inverted commas around a technical term is usually a good way of finding relevant documents swiftly and efficiently.
Where do you go from here?
I’ve described three simple, easy methods that can make online searches a lot easier and more efficient. There are plenty more tips like those, and there are plenty of user-friendly articles listing them.
It’s well worth reading some of those articles, because online search is an increasingly important skill in a world where finding what you need is very much like searching for a needle in a haystack.
Search terms such as tips for online search produce more than enough relevant hits to bring tears of joy to the eyes of most librarians, and to save you from hours of unproductive search, or, worse, from getting tatty, second-rate results that will make you look like an amateur. Learning this tool of your trade is a very, very good investment of time.
On which inspiring note, I’ll end.
Notes and previous related articles
If you’re wondering about the statistics at the start of this article about wrongly spelled search terms and searches relating to sex, then yes, you’re right to wonder. Those figures are from memory, from when I worked in information retrieval, so they might be inaccurate, but they’re not far from the truth.
This article explains how to identify the core references that you need, and explains the concept and function of core references.
This article is about how to find references that will give you a quick and efficient overview of the topic that you’re researching.
This article looks at the big picture of publications and references, with particular attention to which topics appear in formal academic publications, and which topics don’t. I’ll be returning to this theme in a future article on the realities of academic publication. This is an important theme, because formal academic publications only deal with a subset of the relevant knowledge for a given topic. This issue has been receiving increasing attention in the research community over recent decades, and is likely to receive much more attention in the near future. It has big practical implications, which are also receiving increasing attention, particularly in education and in public policy.