Searching for Information in the Web

Searching the Web for information is not an exact science.  There is no single Web site that will yield all the information you may need for a particular project.  You must assume the role a detective in tracking down a variety of clues in many locations.  Yet, to become a good detective, you need to learn the tools of the trade.   You should begin by reading:

The points raised about evaluating the quality of Web resources is very important, so important that it is the subject of next unit.  In the meantime, there are a few points worth mentioning about getting started with searches in the Web.

Understand the strengths and weaknesses of different search engines

Engines search for materials in different ways. Some scan only the words in the title of an HTML document, some consider keywords posted in "metatags" (the <META> command for storing information about a document), others scan and index all text. They also use different methods for directing their searches around to different servers. This is the reason that different search engines return different results using identical keywords. Documentation of the characteristics of search engines is usually available on-line. You should study this documentation so that you understand how a particular engine operates at least in general terms.  Review:

Discover what is contained in on-line databases

If you are using an on-line database find out what it contains. A database is only useful if it contains information related to your topic. If you search in a business database for information about the history of geography, you won't find very much.

Most commercial on-line databases provide documentation that lists the sources from which information was extracted. You should consult this documentation so that you know whether or not to use the database.  For example, find a list of journals abstracted in the ArticleFirat database available from the following source.

Be forewarned, many databases that you find on-line are undocumented. Their creators do not specify how the database was created and from what sources. Use these sources with care. If you don't find what you want it doesn't mean the information doesn't exist, perhaps only that the database developer has not added the source to file.

You should also know that many on-line databases overlap, but you'll often never find out how much until you start to use them. This is particularly true of databases that contain abstracts from journals. Many different services exist and they sometimes summarize the same journals.

Practice Boolean searching

Most engines allow you to use Boolean logical operators, such as the terms AND, OR, and NOT.  For a good overview of the techniques, read:

Study the syntax used by different search engines

Search engines differ in the way you write and execute queries. Some provide a form that you fill out. Others require that you type a search string. To perform Boolean searches some require that type in the operators AND, OR, NOT. Others use symbols like + (plus) or - (minus) to indicate these operations. Before using a search engine or database, study the documentation about the syntax it employs.

Develop search strategies for different types of resources

Because most on-line databases are specialized, you should think of developing different search strategies for finding different types of resources. For example, if you are looking for articles from newspapers and newsmagazines, then you should use databases that specialize in these materials, such as Lexis/Nexis. If you are looking for journals only in the social sciences, the same is true. Get to know the databases available in your field so that you can pick the ones that are the likeliest to yield useful results.

Plan in advance and take notes of your results

Before you go on-line, open a new file in a word processing system like Word 97 (with HTML editing capabilities). Start by making a list of the keywords with which you will begin your search. List them individually or in the combinations you will use for your search. At the top of the page, type the name of the first search engine you will use. Now, go on-line to that search engine. Clipboard (Copy and Paste) the first of the keywords from your Word file into the search engine's form and run the search.

Study and browse the results that are returned. If you find something that you want to keep, copy and paste it into your Word file. If you want to keep all of the results displayed in the screen, use the "Save as" command and save the entire list as an html source code file. Use a name like "results1.html."

Continue using some of the other keywords and keyword combinations that you typed into your Word file. Whenever you find a site of interest, clipboard the address and source back into your Word file under the keyword you used to find it.

The results of your search may suggest that you expand or reduce your list of keywords. If you expand the list, note these in your Word file.

Now, go on to another search engine or database. Start a new section in your Word document by entering the name of the new source. Copy your keywords under this heading so that you will be sure to search them all.

Continue this procedure until you have searched through all relevant databases with all the keywords, or until you find that all of your searches are returning the same results.

There are two important reasons for taking notes as you go:

1. It is easy to lose track of which keywords and search engines you have used, particularly in long and involved searches. By keeping notes, you know exactly what you have done.

2. By adding the results of your search to your notes file, you will save them in a digital form that you can edit into a bibliography or around which you can build your report. You will have saved URLs and, from Word, you can revisit whenever you like. Furthermore, clip boarding results into a word-processing file will minimize the number of typos that may otherwise creep into your work.

 Activity 3: Web Search

Objective: Contribute to the UT Internet Resources for Geographers.

Search the Web for five departments that can be added to the list of Geography Departments Worldwide. You receive one point for each newly discovered department (US and foreign), up to a maximum of five points for each person in your team. No points will be given for items already listed in Geography Departments Worldwide.

Developing a Search Strategy

There are many ways to find additional departments.

1. Use a search engine.  Target your search by location using, for example keywords like "Geography" AND "Department" AND "Massachusetts." You might also try to target specific departments using keywords like "Geography" AND "University" AND "Texas" and "Austin."

2. Work from a list. Very good inventories of colleges and universities are available on-line, such as the lists of colleges and universities that has been compiled by the staff of the General Libraries at the University of Texas at Austin. Use the list to visit a university and then look to see if it has a geography department.

However, not all colleges and universities have geography departments, so it will be slow going if you try to work through these entire lists. It is better to target your search more narrowly. Use the Association of American Geographer's Guide to Programs of Geography in the United States and Canada (a copy will be left in the lab) and Orbis Geographicus (a copy is available at PCL) for listings of departments worldwide.

3. Browse outward from known departments. If you are looking for departments in Scotland, for instance, it might be useful to visit the geography departments at the University of Glasgow and the University of Edinburgh. Neither of these can be used in your list since they have already been posted in our our directory, but both pages may list links to other geography departments in Scotland. The point is that geographers in distant locations will know--and usually list--the URLs for neighboring departments, departments that may be difficult for us to find from afar.

What Counts and What to Put On-line

In searching for geography departments, multidisciplinary programs count as long as they have geography in their title. This would include departments of: "Geography and Geology," "Geography and Environmental Studies," "Geography and Anthropology," "Geography and Planning," and so forth. Again, ask Professor Foote if you have questions. Follow these steps to complete the assignment:

1. For every department, write an annotation of what you find on its Web pages. This might include keywords like:

2. Combine your finds with those in your team. Sort and alphabetize them by country and state.
3. Check all the URLs to make sure they work. No credit will be given for mistyped and mistaken URLs.
4. Markup the combined list with HTML (using Netscape Composer or Word 97) and put it on-line in your Web development area. It should be placed in its own directory and linked from your home page. All the links, including the one from your home page, must work for you to get credit for the assignment.
I am asking each person to format the combined list separately to gain practice with the steps involved. However, be sure to credit all team members on your page.

You must work together as a team to complete this assignment. Your individual score will be the number of courses found by your team divided by the number of people in the team--up to a maximum of five per person.

Page created on 10/27/97 by Jennifer Allan Goett. Last revised 2003.5.21. KEF.