Searching The Internet

The Internet is a big place, and getting information from it can seem a little daunting. It's really not very hard, though. All you have to do is ask one of the many search engines to go and look for you. Well, it's a little harder than that. You have to know HOW to ask the search engines.

Find someone to help:
One of your best resources will be your local school or public librarian. These folks are trained professionals who know exactly how to find information. They will be able to help you find books, videos, and CDROM's. They are also experts on how to find information on-line. It's well worth the time to sit, watch, and ask questions while you and your librarian find the information you need. Keep your eyes open! You not only want to concentrate on the facts you are looking for, you want to concentrate on how the facts are found! The next time you need information, you can use the same methods and resources you used the first time.

How to narrow the search:
All search engines will have a link somewhere on the page that will lead you to more advanced search techniques. You should look at this information to help you use each search engine more effectively. Each engine has different strengths and weaknesses. Explore them all.
Use more words!
If you ask for a broad topic like 'evolution' you can get back well over a million choices! It's really easy to limit your search. You usually just have to give it more words. Here is a good way to start: Give just a couple words to the search engine. See what's returned, and modify your search request based on the results. It may take a few go-arounds, but you'll eventually find what you want. Be sure to look at the results. Even the incorrect ones will give you clues to refine your search.

No, this is not a race of aliens from Star Trek. You can narrow the scope of your search using BOOLEAN operators. This means that you can use AND and OR (or a combination of the two) between words to make your request more specific.

For instance if you ask for interference you will get many hits, but if you search for interference and color this will limit your hits to those documents that contain BOTH the words interference AND color.

If you requested interference or color, documents containing EITHER of the two words would be returned. Note that using OR actually broadens the scope of your search! You can group words with parentheses. Thus you could make a request such as (interference and color) OR (diffraction and color).

There is one more boolean that can be important - NOT. This boolean can be placed in front of a single word (or parenthesized group) to negate (or cancel) its effect. For instance, (interference and color) NOT (diffraction and color) with make sure that the search engine does NOT include any results about diffraction and color.

Though not technically a boolean, some search engines let you use the word "NEAR" between two words to tell the search engine that these two words should appear near each other. For example, "Sagan near Cosmos" should find information about Carl Sagan's television series.

Some Search engines:

Type your inquiry into the boxes below and hit the search button on the same line. A new window will open. To access the advanced features of each engine, click on the name to the left. Foe a great comparison of the engines see the Best Search Tools Chart.








 Northern Light



Meta Search engines: These search many search engines at once!

Meta-search engines cast a wider net. They perform a search of many search engines all at once. Each has its own strengths. As with the search engines above, type your inquiry into the boxes below and hit the search button on the same line. A new window will open. To access the advanced features of each meta-engine, click on the name to the left.

 Ask Jeeves




Advanced Query Tips
Here are some suggestions for getting the best results out of most search engines:

Check your spelling!
This may seem too obvious to mention, but a search engine is only a computer program that does what it's told - EXACTLY what it is told! If you misspell a word, it will dutifully look for that exact misspelling of the word. Below is a dictionary lookup for you to use.

Wordsmyth Dictionary

Use quotes to group words
If you want a group of words to appear in the document exactly in the order that you type them rather than anywhere (separately) in the document, surround the words with quotes. This will cause most search engines to keep the words together. For example "bay area" will likely return results about our area of California.

Beware of homonyms:
Two words are homonyms if they are pronounced or spelled the same way but have different meanings. A good example is 'pray' and 'prey'. If you look up a information on a 'praying mantis', you'll find facts about a religious insect rather than one that seeks out and eats others. 'Bare feet' and 'bear feet' are two very different things! If you use the wrong word to describe your search you will find interesting, but wrong, results.

Synonyms are your friends:
Synonyms, on the other hand, can help you find more information. Synonyms are words that mean the same, but are spelled differently. Sometimes you just need another way to state the problem. This is where finding a synonym can help. Look at your search results. You can often find other words or other ways to state your search. You can also look in a thesaurus (below):

Use + to Require Words:
Put a plus sign (+) in front of a search word and some search engines will make sure that ALL of the documents it returns contain the word. Example search: Travel +France.

Use - to Exclude Words:
Put a minus sign (-) in front of a search word and some search engines will make sure that NONE of the documents it returns contain the word. Example search: Jaguar -car -automobile.

ERROR 404 - Dealing With Nonexistent Pages
Search engines are not infallible or up to date. Here's what to do in case of error:
Search engines only update their databases occasionally. It's quite a bit of work to index the entire internet! Sometimes links go stale as web authors revise sites and move pages around. Sometimes sites will disappear or go out of business. This may cause you to get the dreaded Error 404 message. Don't give up at this point! Sometimes you can still salvage some information from the site. The best way is to look at the web address, or "URL". The URL (Uniform Resource Locator) is that http:// thing you type in to get to a site. Using the example below, the URL specifies the method of data transfer (http or hypertext transfer protocol for accessing web pages), the machine name (, and the location of the document on that machine (/folder1/folder2/stuff.html). If you get a 404 error (page not found) you can "trim" the URL to look for pages higher up in its folder structure. For instance, assume you get an error 404 with the following URL:

You can first try to see if there are any other files in "folder2" by trimming the URL to:

If there is an html index page in this folder (an index.html file), you will see it. If there is no html index file, but there are other files, you will see a listing of all the files in this directory. Try clicking on them. If you still get an error 404, trim the URL again to the next higher level, in this case:

You can continue this right up to the top level:

If this doesn't work, the website has disappeard and is no longer operational. You can give up at this point and try another site.

Note that some sites (including the Exploratorium!) display a special customized "not found" page that may give you hints about finding things on their sites.

©2002, Ron Hipschman - Exploratorium