It's three o'clock in the morning. I have six hours to finish a short story before my critique partner arrives to edit it in time for me to enter it into a contest. All is well except that I need an obscure fact to complete the authentic historical details. None of my personal reference books yield this fact, so, as a last resort, I type, Treaty of Ghent into a search engine. The nearly instant result staggers me. I not only discover the fact about that treaty I need; I discover the entire Avalon Project, which contains four centuries of treaties.
(Note: Italicized text is used for example purposes and does not indicate that you should use italics in search strings.)
That was November 8, 1999, the day I remember falling in love with the Internet.
I'd been using the Internet in a desultory way for a year by this point, but hadn't yet discovered its potential for divulging detailed information. Because I'd had such great success in using the Internet to learn specifics about the Treaty of Ghent, I believed I could easily learn anything I wanted to.
Wrong. The simplest items eluded me such as the Chicken Kiev recipe I needed, when I could not locate my own and had company coming that night, or the web site for a Scottish musician who simply bills himself as "Fish." I needed to learn about search engines and how they work in order to formulate queries that returned effective results.
A search engine is a program that sends out a robot (a program used to search and explore the Internet) to find specific words and phrases in documents on the World Wide Web. These key words are then indexed so that when a query (a word or set of words) are typed into the search engine, the results appear in a list that will link the searcher to that particular document. Most search engines will prioritize these results according to greatest relevance. Simple, right?
Yes, the concept of the search engine is simple to comprehend (though not simple to program, especially when you put how it’s become so marketing-focused on top of everything else). Formulating the queries to produce effective results is where the skills lie.
In graduate school, the librarian taught us how to run the library databases. She talked about search strings--groups of key words--using Boolean operators. These are words and symbols that limit what the engine will return in its results. For example, if I quote the words "colonial hair styles" I should only get documents with the words "colonial hair styles" together. This generally eliminates pages with phrases like "colonial author" or "colonial romance" without information about colonial hair styles on the same page. Other Boolean operators include the words not, and, or, and - (the minus symbol). And and or are used for groups of related words that may not come together in a phrase but be on the same page. Not and - indicate that the query results should exclude certain words from the results. If you wish to learn about bear cubs, type in - Chicago so you don't get pages of returns about the Chicago football and baseball teams. And or + (the plus sign) indicates that you want two words or phrases that may not come next to one another and should both appear on one page. I might want to find sites where colonial authors have written articles about colonial hairstyles, so I could type in colonial hair styles and author. The best examples of search engines that use Boolean operators are www.unboundbible.com and most library databases.
Unfortunately, most commercial search engines such as Yahoo and Google do not recognize Boolean operators unless you go to their advanced search page, which is also not fail-proof. After all, they get paid for click-throughs. The reasoning behind these exclusions is so that the user always gets results. This can lead to considerable frustration. You must sift through several pages of irrelevant data to find if your information appears. One rule to follow in this is not to give up if the desired results do not appear on the first page.
Another rule is to learn how to formulate queries that work in such a nonspecific environment. First of all, be specific. Usually, specificity refers to using as few words as possible. In Internet searches, one needs to use more words to obtain the information one wants. Let's go back to my Fish example. When I type simply Fish into a search engine, I get more about the finned creatures than I could ever want to know, and not find the musician for pages. When I type Fish music singer Scottish into the search engine, I find him on the first page of results.
Sometimes, you have to use synonyms to your query to get the desired results. For your historic mystery, you want to know about what people did at night in colonial America. You wouldn't simply type in night. That query gives you some interesting results, but not quite what you want. So think of all the things that you know happen at night such as sleep, theft, robbery, entertainment, etc.
Alternative techniques are to utilize the directories and advanced features to search engines that allow you to specify the type of page you want such as an .edu site for more academic subjects. All search engines are not created equal. They each have various strengths and weaknesses. Experiment.
Finally, consider the Invisible Web. These are pages behind the scenes. You may wish to know about the average income in Fairfax County Virginia. A general search doesn't bring up this information; however, the information is available. In this case, you need to use fewer words that will take you to a general page from which you can follow links to pages with more detailed information. Type in demographics. Census sites appear. Click on those and follow the links or use their search engines. Go directly to sites that are likely to have the information you want such as the Census Bureau.
Remember that all you read is not fact. Check your source. Question the qualifications of the individual or organization providing the information. What is her background? What do his peers think of him?
Universities teach entire courses on using the Internet. Learning how to obtain successful results to search queries is a skill, which, like most others, takes time to develop. The next time you want to procrastinate from writing, practice searching.
Stay tuned to this channel. Next time I post, I will discuss the benefit and pitfalls of searching Google Books, which is an amazing resource for historical authors.
By Laurie Alice Eakes
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