November 03, 2003

How to Search

Elizabeth Lane Lawley channels Mary Ellen Bates:

mamamusings: Internet Librarian: 30 Search Tips in 40 Minutes: Mary Ellen Bates on tips for searching effectively. These are her tips, not mine. My comments, when I have them, are parenthetical.

I almost hate to share these, because these are the kind of tips that let people like me come across as an “angel of information mercy” to the people who ask me for help in finding things!

BTW, Mary Ellen is a great presenter. Funny, interesting, clear. She’s got a free “tip of the month” email update, which you can also read on her web site.

  1. Always use more than one search engine. (You’ll often get very different results; useful to triangulate.) See a test at
  2. Use AltaVista’s “world keyboard” to insert non-Roman characters.
  3. Use AltaVista’s “sorted by” box to filter results. It’s not an “AND”, but it causes results with the sorted-by contents to bubble up to the top. “Softer than an AND but more relevant than an OR.
  4. Use thesauri and web dictionaries to identify key words, put client’s request in context. (e.g. Google’s define feature, etc)
  5. Use spell-check to identify American-only spellings (fiber/fibre, labor/labour, etc). Type search terms in MS Word, set language to UK English, and run spell check!
  6. Watch for alternative phrasing (retirement/superannuation, revenue/turnover). British to American tips
  7. Use Google’s synonym feature. ~search-term; e.g. ~sheep returns sites with terms livestock, lamb.
  8. Use “pearl culturing” (particularly in for-fee services)—look for key concepts in just the title of elements, then find the keywords assigned to that document. Use a similar approach on the web by using a “reverse link lookup”—find out who linked to a site, on the assumption they’ll have more like it.
  9. Use Google’s “related:” operator. Syntax: ; doesn’t find linked pages; finds similar pages.
  10. Use tools, not search engines. Open directory (, subject-specific directories. Use search engine to find a tool, use the tool to find the answer. Let someone else (an expert) find the most relevant/authoritative information.
  11. Search for sources, not just information. Assume key information will be buried in the “invisible web.”
  12. Mine weblogs, don’t subscribe to ‘em. “JIT research, rather than JIC reading.” Use daypop, technorati searches. (“Weblogs are the most efficient source of time wasting.”)
  13. Use AllTheWeb’s URL Investigator ; type URL in search box and see lots of meta information about the link.
  14. Use “reverse link” searching as a citation search, and to find “more like this”. Google syntax is Works best with less common sites. Works better in AllTheWeb
    #Use Wayback Machine to find deleted pages, 404 pages, etc. It now has full text searching which greatly enhances its value. Useful to see how an issue was treated at a specific point in time, or how it changed over time.
  15. Use whois to track down elusive companies.,, Caveat: some people lie. Aternative, Dialog’s Domain Names database (file 225), which lists Whowas records.
  16. Use commercial online services to search the web. Dialog, Factiva, LexisNexis. Search for keyword near multiple occurrences of “www” — this generally leads to a good overview article, with related links.
  17. Use to identify experts’ sites, link-rich pages. (Look at “resources” section on results page; these are “link-rich” sites on your topic.)
  18. Poke around the site. Be nosy. Use the “search this site” function, use site map, check all the pull-down menus.
  19. Mine Yahoo! Groups. Many groups have shared files, but you must join the group to get access. Find groups on a specialized topic, use that as a subject resource. (“Where would people with shared, obscure interests go to discuss a topic with like-minded people?”) This is invisible web content; you won’t find it in a general search engine.
  20. Buy a kitchen timer. After 15 minutes, re-evaluate your web research strategy. You can get so deep into “following the trail” that you lose your focus. (My note: Great idea for a lot of things. Blog reading, etc.)
  21. Use “type of document” indicators; for audio, include things like listen or hear — for opinion pieces look for PDF or DOC files. For statistics, look for .XLS files; include chart or graph along with keywords.
  22. Know the advanced search capabilities of at least three search engines. Truncation? Proximity searching? Case sensitivity? Field searching?
  23. Use results “clustering” or refining features when you can. Example of “”, an Australian search engine, which clusters results visually. Small index right now, but the concept is very cool. (My note: This kind of clustering is what I’ve always liked about NorthernLight, which was my pre-Google favorite engine.)
  24. Search inges only show 2 or 3 results from a site; click the more results from… link to see (often) many more pages.
  25. Know what you’re looking for. What kind of answer? A phone number? An expert? Search engine might not be the best tool. Think creatively about what kind of information you’re looking for; where would that be likely to be?
  26. Use the web to find experts, then pick up the phone! Makes you “value added” in a way that matters to clients.
  27. Use free sources to scope out what’s available, and to find problems in your search strategy— then go to a for-fee service.
  28. Disambiguate. Know what you’re looking for. What does “mobile messaging” mean? Net-enabled PDAs, or vehicles that display advertising. Always rephrase the request in your own words.
  29. What works best for the professional online services doesn’t work well with web searching. Complex searches don’t work on the web. Order of the search terms matters. Forget precision and go for what will likely float to the top.
  30. Some searches are simply not meant to be done online.

Posted by DeLong at November 3, 2003 07:37 PM | TrackBack

Comments has a really great clustering display
of meta-search results using Macromedia Flash (or something like that)

Posted by: J Edgar on November 5, 2003 05:49 PM


Good advice. But when you think about it, the fact that it is on a weblog supposed to be about economics reminds me more of the old-fashioned searches I used to do in card catalogs, where you get sidetracked by some other interesting sounding title that has nothing to do with your search.

That's not supposed to happen anymore, you're just supposed to use the computer and head straight for the objective, no sidetracking.

That's one of the reasons that I think people like weblogs- the best ones stay mostly on track but you know every once in a while there will be something a little different, something you didn't expect, or they will even pop off with something really wacky and surprise you.

Posted by: northernLights on November 5, 2003 07:11 PM


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