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Friday, May 20, 2011

Elusive Answers - Striving for Online Literacy

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 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

CFP for CQ:  GIVEAWAY:   Leave a comment for a chance to win a copy of one of Laurie Alice Eakes' books!  Leave your email address, please.  Winner will be drawn on Monday.


  1. i will wait for your post for that benefit and pitfalls of searching google books.. Website design Chicago

  2. Great tips, Laurie! I'm afraid I have an Internet addiction! I love having info at my fingertips without having to haul myself to the physical library like I used to.

    I'm doing a freelance article on Centenarians for a local magazine in Charlotte. I used my cell phone to take photos of them. They were curious about it and once they realized it was a phone, music player, camera, email, Internet, I can take credit card payments, etc. They started calling my Droid a "Magic Box". It was so neat to talk to people that were born in 1910. They said they were from the horse and buggy days. I keep wondering what the Internet will be like when we're 100 or more.

  3. Thanks, Laurie, for great tips.

  4. Jennifer, My dad, who was born in 1918, always kept up with technology. If he were still here, he would likely be well aware of what all your phone could do. And he would want one!

    LAE, excellent post from a wonderful and natural teacher/professor as well as a multi-published author! Blessings!

  5. Thanks for helping clear some of the research clutter for me.

  6. Thanks for the suggestions. I'm guilty of not looking past the first page. If the information I'm looking for doesn't come up on page one, I just reword and search again. Perhaps I need to give page two a try as well. :o)


  7. Oh - this is very helpful! Thanks so much!

    Please enter me. joanne(at)joannesher(dot)com

  8. Laurie Alice, You always teach me something:) I'm going to reread this. Pls don't enter me in the drawing as I think I have all of her books! I want others here to have the chance to win and enjoy them just as much. Bless you for a great post yet again!

  9. Really super--especially for a girl who grew up in the era of typewriters and mimeograph machines...(anyone remember the smell? :) But I'm learning fast. (Re: the Moore post this a.m.--I wonder if he considered the serious amount of time, expense etc. that Christian writers put into their research trying to get it "right". Thank you, Laurie Alice--you are a gift to us!

  10. Search engines can be so frustrating! Thanks for the tips, Ms. Eakes, I need all the help I can get understanding those things! Though I have had some sucess with BING.

    I am eagerly awaiting your next release!

    Please enter me!

    crazi.swans at gmail dot com

  11. these are great tips, thanks!

    the character therapist
    charactertherapist at hotmail dot com

  12. Arrrgh! This world and this internet is simply crammed with marvelous things and glitches to wade through! My mother in law, born in 1915 could not live without her Google! At almost 96 that is magnificent! patti iverson 1930 Bristol Dr. Medford, OR 97504

  13. Thank you for sharing your expertise with us, Laurie Alice! This is a very good article that I'm sure many will benefit from.

  14. I had no idea there were so many other ways to dig deeper! I am a search-a-holic and love to look for random things just for fun....but now you have opened up so many new ways to search I may never get my book finished! LOL! BTW...I love your pic with your family! Beautiful! I think you should update and let everyone see your gorgeous smile :-) Please enter me in the drawing, I am looking forward to reading what goes on in your mind! Love YA! Cheri' (cherihorgan at hotmail dot com)

  15. Cheri, Laurie Alice is the queen of the search!Patti, your MIL and my dad would have gotten along great!! Faye, I have not tried Bing, I wonder if Laurie Alice has. Jeannie, so good to see you at CQ. Sheri and Lauralee, good to see VA gals here and we pray Laurie Alice moves back! Diana and Joane, we have such a nice array of articles here, don't we? And CQers, so good to see you all here and hugs all around!!

  16. Drawing is on Monday morning because that is what I posted!

  17. Informative post, Laurie Alice! And what a great blog--I hadn't seen this one before. I'm signing up as a follower.
    annshorey [at] msn [dot] com

  18. Thank you for a great post, Laurie Alice! This is something I've been wrestling with.

    patty at pattywysong dotcom

  19. Thanks for all these tips. Sometimes it seems so easy to find information, and other times it feels impossible, though you KNOW if must be out there!

  20. Thank you so much, Laurie Alice! This will make wrestling with the search engines a little bit easier. Lol!

  21. Congrats to Naomi Musch, who has won a copy of one of Laurie's books (via Overcoming Through Time blog) and to Faye, also, from CQ!


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