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Lesson S-2

Web Search Engines: 
For a Quick Take On a Topic

Search Graphic
Well-known Web search engines rarely find much of the research literature on topics in the social sciences. AltaVista, Find, Google, HotBot, Metacrawler and Yahoo, will find you thousands of sources on education, human resource development, and other matters, but most of it will be from magazines, newspapers, and various organizations' own Web pages, rather than from research journals and dissertations, which are the main sources of research literature.  This is because most of the journals and dissertations are not yet available publicly on the Web. 

So why bother with them?  Search engines are often useful at the very beginning of a search to get a quick view of a topic and at the very end to find contact information for experts whom you wish to contact about their on-going and just completed work.  In addition, because the Web and the search engines are evolving rapidly, it is likely that search engines will become a better tool for locating research literature within the next couple of years. 

To make the best use of Web search engines--to find what you need and avoid an avalanche of irrelevant hits--you should pick two or three search engines that are well suited to your needs and spend a few hours becoming moderately proficient with each.  Each works somewhat differently, most importantly in respect to how you broaden or narrow a search. 

Note on Terminology: Many discussions of Web searching devices distinguish between three types of Web searching devices: "Search engines" use software to search and index the web according to keywords in the hidden "meta tags" of Web pages and sometime the full text of the pages.  "Directories" or "subject guides" are indexes prepared by humans after examining the pages on the Web.  "Meta-search engines" use software that submits a search to multiple search engines and directories.  In this discussion, all will be referred to as search engines. 


  • Search engines are a quick way to learn of popular topics, of some of the people involved, and of related topics that you might not have considered.  This can inform your subsequent searches with ERIC, PsycINFO, ABI/Inform, and other better means for finding research and scholarly literature.
  • Some of the best means for finding research literature do not provide the full text online, nor do they hotlink to it when it exists elsewhere on the Web.  Once these means have given you citation information, you can use a search engine to see if the source, or some derivative of it, is available in full text online. 
  • People with unconventional views find it difficult to publish in the scholarly literature, even when they have done a credible study, but they can easily place their work on the Web. 
  • There are several searching engines that find people, and they might help you track down an elusive expert with whom you wish to communicate. 
  • The search engines do not currently find much of the research literature. This is because most of it is not yet posted publicly on the Web.
  • The Web is huge and growing exponentially.  Simple searches, using a single word or phrase, will often yield thousands of "hits", most of which will be irrelevant. 
  • The syntax (word order and punctuation) for various types of complex searches varies some from search engine to search engine, and small errors in the syntax can seriously compromise the search.  For instance, asking some search engines to find sources on education reform will find Web sites containing either of those words, rather than those with the full phrase. 
  • None of the search engines indexes everything on the Web. A 1998 test found that the percentage ranged from a high of 34 percent for HotBot to 3 percent for Lycos
  • While some of the information on the Web is first-rate, the Web also has much false, misleading, and deceptive information that has been produced by charlatans and weirdos, some of which has been dressed to appear respectable.
  • The search engines are mostly run by for-profit firms which haven't yet made much profit, and there is a possibility they are taking fees to skew their searches. 
  • The Web itself is unstable and the great source that you found yesterday may be gone tomorrow. 
  • Similarly, many of the Web search engines are undergoing rapid development and are not well documented.  You will have only an approximate idea of how they are working, and unknown shortcomings may cause them to miss desired information. 
  • Meta-search engines allow you to submit one search to several search engines, but complex searches are usually simplified, resulting in important misses and/or many unwanted hits. 
Trail GuideTrail Guide

The following will help you learn how to use search engines in a powerful and efficient manner. 

  1. It is best to select two or three general purpose search engines and learn how to use each well.  The ones that have regularly received top rankings in the various tests over the last two years are: 
    • AltaVista -- indexes substantial portion of the Web; has powerful search features.
    • Excite -- indexes modest portion of Web; delivers considerable news/ business info.
    • Google -- claims to have the indexed over a billion pages; is fast and offers good relevant hits.
    • HotBot -- indexes substantial portion of the Web; moderately powerful searching.
    • Infoseek -- indexes a small portion of the Web, but handles natural English queries.
    • Lycos -- indexes small portion of the Web.
    • Metacrawler -- performs an all-in-one searches of search engines like Alta Vista and Lycos and delivers good links to resources.
    • Northern Light -- indexes substantial portion of Web and some non-Web documents.
    • Yahoo -- indexes substantial portion of the Web, with human review of the appropriateness of of each listed site in the directory.

    For scholars and professionals in education, human resource development, and the other social services, the best combination of these is probably AltaVista, NorthernLight, and Yahoo.  All three have broad reach and they access resources in different ways. When interested in topics that fall within the broad rubric of psychology, which includes part of education and human resource development, the specialized web search engine PsychCrawler may also be quite helpful. 
  2. The following are several Web sites that provide useful instruction on how to use search engines: 
    • Sprintmail’s Web Search Strategies: This is probably the single best site for learning how to use search engines. It provides relatively clear explanations and has many interactive exercises that involve the actual use of search engines.  Those exercises will divide your screen into two “frames” with the left side providing the instructions and the right side opening and displaying the actual search engine.  Hint: You will have to use the horizontal scroll bar toward the bottom of the right hand side to display the full width of the search engine display. 
    • Lincoln College in New Zealand: Offers a very good introduction to AltaVista and Yahoo.  It starts with introductory information.  The tutorial for each search engine is displayed on the left of your screen and the search engine is displayed on the right of the screen.  Both tutorials are divided into multiple “sections”, each of which provides information, assigns searches for you to conduct in the right hand side of the screen, quizzes you on the results, and provides hints.  Hints: To move between the “Info”, “Tasks”, “Quiz” and “Hints” displays, click on the file card tabs with those headings.  To move to the next “section” of the tutorial, click on “Next”.  You will have to use the horizontal scroll bar under the search engine to see the full width of the search engine display. 
    • Gelman Library Search Engine Guide: This site provides good brief instructions on how to use search engines, but doesn't provide interactive tutorials. 
    • Delphi Forums: Walt's Navigating the Net Forum: This site provides lucid and succinct mid-level instruction on using using web search engines, but does not not have interactive tutorials.  It includes good hints on how to find sites for which you have an obsolete or erroneous URL. 
    • Web Searching, Sleuthing, and Sifting: This site provides a good introductory and intermediate level guidance on using search engines, but it does not provide interactive tutorials with the actual search engines. 
    • Sink or Swim--Internet Search Tools and Techniques: This site provides a general introduction to search engines.  It has relatively little on search strategies, but good information on the characteristics of five engines, including AltaVista and NorthernLight
    • Search Engine Watch: This sites provides extensive information on search engines and links to other sites with information on that topic.  This site is for people who already have basic skills in using search engines.  Click on “Search Engine Facts and Fun” to access several pages dealing with intermediate and advanced search strategies. 

  3. Alfred and Emily Glossbrenner's Search Engines for the World Wide Web provides an excellent guide to using search engines.  For each popular search engine, it explains, with illustrations of the search engine screens, how to do simple and complex searches.  Warning: Some parts of any book on this subject are likely to be obsolete by the time the book leaves the printers.  Get the latest edition; the second edition came out in early 1999.  It is a bargain at $17.99.

  5. Most of the search engines have instructions for their use, but finding the appropriate link in their cluttered home pages can be difficult.  Look for "Search Tips," "Simple Searches," "Advanced Searching," "Help," and "FAQ."  Don't just look in the main part of the home page; also look in the header and at the very bottom of the page.

  7. The Web-based people locators are erratic, but they are very easy to use, so if one doesn't work try another among the following: 
  8. If you can't find contact information for scholars by the web based people locators, check the Web sites of the professional associations to which they belong to see if they have a membership directory on the site (See Lesson S-7). 
First AidFirst Aid
  • Semi-competance in your Web searches is generally not critical, because search engines should not be relied upon to find most of the existing research on a given topic. 
  • Most search engines have a "simple" and "advanced" search mode. If one doesn't do the trick, try the other.  The advanced mode usually provides better guidance on how to do searches with multiple words or multiple phrases. 
  • See the general First Aid suggestions for dealing with insufficient hits and too many hits that are provided toward the bottom of the page for the "Overview of Modern Search Strategies" (See Lesson S-1).
  • Sometimes a search finds a long Web page and it is hard to find the discussions relevant to your search.  By clicking "Edit" and then "Find in Page" most web browsers will find the discussion(s) that include your search term. 
  • If one search engine fails you, try another, making sure to check its required syntax for the complex searches that you may want to make. 
  • If all else fails, ask a reference librarian for help.  Many have become expert with a couple of search engines (See Lesson S-8). 
Return Home or Advance to Lesson S-3

Last Update: November 6, 2000Link to the George Washington UniversitySend feedbackLink to Education Policy Page