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CRLS Research Guide

Using Search Engines

Tip Sheet 7d

Using Search Engines

Ask these questions:

What are they? 

Search engines are, in essence, robots that go look in thousands of web sites for the words you ask them to find. When they find those words, they give you a list of websites in order of how frequently those words appear on the website. Search engines are free to use and are operated by private companies. The quality varies, depending on how many and which websites they will search to find your words. You will want to try a number of different ones and change the ones you use periodically as the companies change their methods. You can read more about the quality of specific search engines in the "Related Links" below.


How do I use them?

Your success in using search engines depends on 3 things:
1. The search engine you use
2. The way you enter your key words
3. How well you evaluate the information on a site


How can I best enter key words in a search engine?

Using key words effectively for web searches requires some understanding of Boolean Logic. Don't get nervous, it is pretty easy to understand. Here is a quick primer and then you can look at the "Related Links" at the bottom of this page to go into more depth, if you like.

A Quick Primer in Boolean Logic

Boolean logic simply is a way to link words and phrases together to ensure you get a list of sites that are valuable to you, so you don't waste a lot of time looking at sites that aren't useful.

(For you math fans, it is based on a mathematical logic concept which is related to Set Theory and was developed by French mathematician George Boole.)

It works like this.

You will use words called Boolean operators to link key words and phrases. These Boolean operators are:

        AND, OR, and NOT. 

When you want 2 or more key words to be searched together as a phrase, you usually must put quotations around that phrase.

example  "Harlem Renaissance"


How can I use these Boolean Operators to make good searches?

It's pretty easy. Just follow these basic guidelines and plug in your own key words. For a more developed discussion of this topic with examples and diagrams, click on the "Related Links" below.

Is your list of relevant hits too big? To get fewer hits, try one or both of the following:

1. If you are getting too many unwanted hits, limit your search by linking your key words with the phrase AND (some search engines use the plus '+' sign instead). This will ensure that the words on either side of the AND are in all of the sites on your hit list.


If you want AIDS statistics in France, type:

AIDS AND France AND statistics

or try

AIDS + France + statistics

2. If you are getting sites that include related words that you don't want, use the word NOT (some search engines use the minus '-' sign instead) before a word to exclude sites with those words.


If you want sites on the Renaissance in Europe, but you keep getting sites on the Harlem Renaissance, type:

Renaissance NOT Harlem

or try

Renaissance - Harlem

Is your hit list too small, or you get no hits  at all? Try using the word OR between related words or synonyms. 


AIDS OR HIV AND France AND Statistics

You see that you can combine the Boolean operators into a long string of linked words and phrases. Experiment with this so that you can upgrade your web searching skills.


How can I evaluate the information I find on websites?

You will need to learn to criteria for evaluating websites. There are handouts available from the CRLS library on this important topic. In brief, you need to be able to judge a site on 6 criteria:

1. Reliability of the author (Is there a way to contact them? Are they an expert in their field?)

2. Accuracy of the information (How does the information compare to reliable information you have already found in encyclopedias, books, or periodical articles - all of which have been written or edited by an expert?)

3. Bias of the author/site (Is there a motive in creating this site other than simply giving you information? Do they want to buy something, take something, do something? Know what the authors motive is.)

4. Currency of the site (When was it last updated? In some cases, you want to avoid outdated information.)

5. Ease of navigation (How easy is it to get around on the site? Professionally made sites are usually easy to navigate.)


Copyright © 2004 Holly Samuels All Rights Reserved