Remember how long it used to take to find an obscure bit of information? First you drove to the library. Then you spent an hour combing the card catalog for likely books on the topic. Then you searched for the books themselves-- which were usually checked out or missing. If you did find them, you then spent more hours searching the table of contents and indices for that elusive nugget of data.
Now you can achieve the same results in less than a minute, with the touch of a button. Internet search engines enable you to research general subject areas -- e.g., everything you wanted to know about 17th-century costumes -- or look up the answers to specific questions ("What is the planetary mass of Jupiter?").
The key is defining an effective search term (or set of terms). Your goal is to choose terms that will bring up the most relevant sites, while excluding those that are irrelevant.
To accomplish this, your terms should be as specific as possible. Often, a good way to accomplish this is to specify two, three, or more precise words that you want to find within the same document. For example, if you wanted to research "cat care," simply typing "cats" into a search engine would bring up a host of inappropriate sites (including sites related to the play, to the movie Cats and Dogs, and to a baseball team called the "Tiger-Cats"). However, by entering terms such as "cats" and "care", you'll get more focused results. An even better approach is to ask yourself what type of phrase an article on "caring for cats" would be most likely to contain, and enter that phrase -- e.g., "how to care for your cat" or "how to take care of your cat". This particular search term brings up several useful-looking sites within the first 20 results.
Another approach is to determine what terminology an expert in the subject area would use. If you're conducting research on "cancer in cats," for example, using a combination of terms like "cats" and "cancer" will certainly produce good results. However, searching on a term like "feline oncology" may be even more productive, as this is the terminology that would be used by veterinarians.
If you want to search on a specific term or phrase (more than one word in a specific order), put that phrase in quotation marks. Let's say you wanted to find the speech that included the phrase, "Now is the time for all good men..." You could easily put that phrase in quotes and enter it. (On Google, you could even put it in without quotes and have a pretty good chance of finding what you want, but quotes make it more certain.)
In the "early days," search engines assumed that if you typed more than one word into the search box, you wanted "any" of the words rather than "all" of the words. If you wanted to find records that included all the words, you had to type "AND" (or "+"). Fortunately, today's engines have refined their logic and assume that if you type more than one word into the search box, you only want records that include all your search terms, and you no longer have to specify the "and." In addition, Google will attempt to find sites that cluster your terms closely together; thus, by entering "cancer" and "cats" into your search, you're more likely to get sites that include phrases like "cancer in cats" than, say, the personal story of someone who has dealt with cancer and also happens to have a cat.
One "Boolean operator," as those old "ands" are referred to, can still be used in your search, however: "Not." For example, if you wanted to find information on limericks, but not on Limerick, Ireland, you could try excluding the latter by entering "limerick NOT Ireland" into your search box (without the quotes).
It's possible to refine a search even further by specifying where a term should be found. You can specify that you want it to be found in the URL, or in some other part of the document. You can often specify a range of dates for your search -- that you want documents within a particular time frame (e.g., December 2005) or no documents prior to January 2004. All of these tricks can help refine a search.
Keep in mind that search engines are specific. They can't "guess" or provide information that is "close" (although Google does offer options if it finds a spelling close to what you've entered). They can only find exactly what you enter. (Needless to say, spelling is important!) What most engines will do, however, is rank the results based on how many times your search term appears in a document, or how close to the beginning of the document it appears (along with a number of other variables, including the overall popularity of the site). That doesn't mean, however, that you should look only at the first few results provided. You may find that the perfect site is #30 on the list, or even #50. (If you scan two or three pages of results without finding a likely site, however, you probably need to redefine your search.)
Another thing to keep in mind is that different countries use different spellings. If you're using American spellings, your search may exclude non-U.S. sites that could offer valuable information. If a word has both an American and a British spelling, try both (e.g., "catalog" vs. "catalogue"). Similarly, if you're searching for information about a specific date, remember that while the U.S. format would be "May 4, 2001," the European format would be "4 May 2001".
It's easy to relegate search engines to the category of "research tool," used only when you need to find facts or background information for an article or story. You can use them to find more than "facts," however. Here are some other ways to use them:
1) "Ego-surfing." Try searching on your own name; you might be surprised at where it turns up. This is also an excellent way to find out whether someone has posted material of yours without your permission. Similarly, you can search for your own writings by selecting a title or key phrase, to determine whether it is appearing somewhere online without authorization.
2) Market searches. Try searching on phrases like "submission guidelines," "contributor guidelines," or "writer's guidelines" to locate market opportunities. If you want to find paying markets, combine one of those terms with a dollar sign (e.g., "contributor guidelines" and "$".)
3) Contests. Try searching on terms like "short fiction competition," "poetry contest," etc. to locate writing contests.
4) Links to your Web site. If you'd like to find out how many sites are linking to your site, run a "link" search. On Google, simply enter link:www.mydomain.com or, if you don't have your own domain or want to find a specific file, link:www.domain.com/mydirectory/myfile.html. (You can also specify a link search by going into Google's Advanced Search menu.) It can be a real ego-boost to discover how many Web sites link to you! (Keep in mind that this search will also pull up any of your own Web site pages that have internal links to other parts of your site.)
5) Images, audio files, and video files. If your story is set in a distant location that you have no hope of visiting, try searching for images of that location. Just click the "images" link on the search page, then enter the term you'd like to search for. You can search for all types of images, or specify photographs, graphics, illustrations, etc. You can also search for audio files -- such as recorded speeches, songs, etc. -- or video clips.
6) Dates in history. Want to find out what happened on a particular date? Try searching on that date -- e.g., "March 3, 1892". (Remember that to access non-U.S. records, you'll need to use the European format -- "3 March 1892".) You'll find lots of fascinating information, including archived newspaper articles. (You'll also call up a ton of genealogical references to persons who were born or died on that date, so expect to have to wade through a number of non-relevant sites to find what you want.)
Search engines are not the only way to find information online. Far from it! They're just a great place to start. I don't have space (or energy) to get into all the different ways that you can track down information online, but here are some other opportunities.
1) Newspapers. If you're researching a story or article that relates to a particular area, or local events, or an area's history, you might find it useful to check the newspaper archives for that area. Some newspapers put only their current issues online, but others are building extensive archives. You'll find a list of newspaper directory sites at http://www.writing-world.com/links/magazines.shtml
2) "Gateway" sites. If you want to find the best references on a topic, go find someone who has made that topic their specialty. That site is likely to have the best links to the best references -- far better than what you'll turn up on a search. The way to start your search is by plugging terms into a search engine; typically, if you're lucky, that will take you to one or two really good sites on the topic, from which you can explore the links those site hosts have selected as "the best." I've found that many of the links I find on such sites never do turn up in my search-engine search.
3) Webrings. You can find a lot of information through webrings. When you find a useful site, scroll to the bottom of the page, and see if it is linked into a webring that seems relevant to your research topic. Some webrings have a "list" link that lets you view all the members of that ring. This gives you a way to locate other sites on the same topic.
4) Databases. Information in databases will not always turn up on an ordinary search; database pages can't always be "spidered" by web-search robots (though search engines are getting better at this all the time). Thus, there's a huge amount of information online that can only be found if you know where to find the databases. What you can do is use a search engine to find databases. Try this by typing in a search term that you'd like to find information on, plus the term "database."
While the Internet is a great source of information, it's also important to make sure that the information you find is accurate. No one is monitoring this stuff, and there's lots of false or inaccurate information online.
The best guide to accuracy is common sense. When you visit a website, ask yourself if this appears to be a professional site that seems reliable. Is the material presented in a professional manner? I'm very wary of sites in which text is presented in huge, bold type, with lots of exclamation points or caps. Which would you feel was more reliable?
Shackleton DIED TRAGICALLY on January 5, 1922!!
Both statements are true, but I'd be more inclined to trust a website that doesn't seem to be making some sort of emotional point. (If you search on "Shackleton" and "died", you'll find at least one website that states that he died on January 4 -- a good example of why it's wise to crosscheck information. In this case, since a dozen sites say "January 5," I'm inclined to believe the majority.)
Is the site trying to push an agenda, prove a point, persuade you to a particular view, or badmouth the opposition? In any of these cases, be cautious about the information you find there. Is it obviously trying to sell a product? I'm always wary of any "medical" information that is associated with a site that is trying to promote some sort of vitamin or supplement, or someone's book on an "overlooked treatment," etc.
Early articles on "evaluating online information" used a sort of conventional wisdom that recommended .org or .edu sites over .coms, but this wisdom is flawed. Anyone can get a .com, .org, or .net site -- you don't have to prove that you are an organization (or whatever) to use that suffix. Many of the best information sites on the web are .coms. Conversely, many .org sites belong to organizations with specific agendas -- which means that their information may be biased or one-sided. A .edu site does not mean that a site is "sponsored" by a university (and therefore, presumably, scrutinized for accuracy); it simply means that the site is hosted by that university's server. It could be run by a student or a faculty member -- and it may have no scrutiny whatsoever. So site suffixes are not a way to judge the value of a site's information.
The Bible tells us, "seek and ye shall find," and on the Internet, if you seek, you're bound to find something. It may not be precisely what you're looking for, but it's certain to be interesting, and may lead you in directions you never imagined when you started your research. Of course, that's also one of the Internet's biggest hazards; if we're not careful, we can get sucked into the fascination of "seeking" and spend our entire day "Googling" instead of writing!
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