From Now On
The Educational Technology Journal

 Vol 7|No 4|January|1998

Searching for the Grail?

Power Searching with Digital Logic

by Jamie McKenzie
About Author

No sense sending students and colleagues out to search the Internet or a CD-ROM encyclopedia unless they possess a toolkit of powerful search strategies to speed them past Info-Glut and Info-Garbage to the very information they need.

Power Searching cuts past what David Shenk calls Data Smog.

Learn these ten strategies and you are on your way to information which is pertinent, cogent and worth saving. Converting such information into Insight requires a different set of strategies.

 1. Question and draw before you search  6. Browse before grazing
 2. Use only the best  7. Go to the source
 3. Learn the syntax  8. Be discrete
 4. Learn the features  9. Cull your findings
 5. Start big and broad  10. Be playful

Search engines don't work well on the almost unlimited, often unstructured resources of the Internet, says J. Pemberton:

"Think of a search engine as a dog whistle. Blow it in a kennel and you'll just attract dogs. Blow it in a zoo, and you'll get a few dogs, plus many other creatures with good high frequency hearing: maybe some lions or tigers, hyenas, coyotes, timber wolves, perhaps a moose. . . . The point is this: the Internet is a zoo." Jeffery K. Pemberton's column in Online User magazine, May/June 1996.

1. Question and draw before you search

Think and draw before you plunge. Make a list of great questions.

Take advantage of mindware like Inspiration to create a cluster diagram with several dozen concepts, keywords and telling questions which will be powerfully instrumental later when executing your search.


You ask your students to work as teams to propose a mix of laws and government programs which would serve to protect old growth forests while restoring the vitality of this nation's timber industry.

You send them to one particularly intriguing article to start them thinking.

You ask them to work in teams to create cluster diagrams listing as many pertinent concepts and keywords as possible.

One team's diagram looks something like this . . .

2. Use only the best

Pick the best search engine. Bookmark it.

Stay with that search engine until someone invents a faster and better information trap (which may not take long).

Do not rely upon the "search" buttons built into Netscape or Explorer. These lists create advertising revenue for the software companies and the placement of search engines is a function of revenue rather than value.

How do you pick a good one? Two basic strategies:

  • Read independent reviews such as these, valuable for the way they look at search engines as well as the actual ratings:
  • Conduct your own evaluation based on criteria such as those offered below.

 Speed How quickly do pages open and how swiftly do results of searches appear? Some search engines are graphically (advertising) bloated.
 Boolean Capabilities Learning how to use logical operators such as AND, OR and NOT greatly enhances your searching. If the search engine doesn't support Boolean searching, don't waste your time. Fuzzy Logic usually produces fuzzy search results.
 Power Sorting & Searching Features The best search engines allow you to sort and sift findings by dates, type of page, type of domain (com vs. edu), etc.
 Interface Design Good search engines keep the search box front and center where you can enter words without scrolling about. How well are the items and choices laid out on the page? Can you find what you need when and where you need it? Do ads get in the way of your searching?
 Browsing Capabilities Can you look at more than 10 "hits" at a time? It is very helpful to quickly scan the first 100 hits. Is the description or annotation of each item sufficient to provide a basis for making a wise choice? Can you determine relevancy?
 Breadth & Depth of Database Some search engines and their spiders do a better job of collecting from the world's vast array of Web sites. Is larger better?
 Digital Logic Many search engines employ artificial intelligence and digital logic to determine relevancy, proximity and other issues which might help you find the best information. Do they explain the rules of their system or are they hidden? When Web sites and pages appear in the top 20, do they actually belong there?
 Reasonable Advertising Some search engines accept advertising which might offend. Do you care? If so, which seem OK to you?
 Useful Results The bottom line or essential question is "How useful are the results?" Do you find reliable and relevant information swiftly?

No matter which search engine you select, do not settle for the "simple search" version of any. You are sacrificing power and accuracy for ease of use. It's a bit like training wheels on a bike. Go for the Power Search or the Advanced Search and encourage your students to do the same. They offer features which will vastly improve your results when combined with the suggestion in this article.


3. Learn the syntax

The more powerful the search engine, the more important the syntax - the rules governing how you enter your search query. Because few people stop to read and learn these rules, they end up with crude and clumsy searches.

For example, some search engines care about CAPITAL LETTERS and punctuation. Others ignore them both. If you search for Washington, D.C. with the following query, you may achieve no "hits" with one search engine and thousands with another . . .


Another example . . . when you want an exact phrase such as "old growth forest," some search engines require quotation marks around the words which belong together, while others do not care.

Another example . . . when you are conducting Boolean searches, some search engines require that you capitalize AND, OR and NOT. Failure to do so may convince your search engine to ignore these critical words.

You can usually find the syntax for any search engine in the Help pages. If not, you may want to look for an engine that explains its rules.

4. Learn the features

As Info-Glut has grown to be more and more of a problem, the search engines have competed fiercely to offer the best tools to support you in your sorting and sifting, and yet I have witnessed hundreds of folks ignoring these powerful extra tools and features.

Altavista's Advanced Search offers important extra features:

  • In addition to Boolean searching, Altavista allows you to designate one keyword to be given the highest ranking and priority in compiling the results list.
  • Altavista makes it possible to set a range of dates, thereby excluding old material or focusing upon a particular period.
  • REFINE SEARCH saves you the trouble of browsing hundreds of results looking for trends and categories. It looks through your thousands of hits and sorts them into categories, providing you a list which you can elect to exclude or require. This is a wonderful antidote to Info-Glut.
Example of Altavista REFINE SEARCH for "old growth forest"

HotBot's Super Search allows you to request particular domains, particular dates, particular levels of a Web site, particular countries of origin, particular types of files and as many as 100 results at a time. These can be very helpful search features.

The Power Searcher explores all of the features of a chosen search engine in advance of real searching in order to apply these extra tools with skill when they are needed.

5. Start big and broad (then narrow cautiously)

Effective searching requires a balance between a broad reach and a careful aim. The searcher must cast a net far enough to capture the most important information, and then, once safely contained, must cull the results so that only the best information remains.

Our first search for "old growth forest" produces more than 5,000 hits, many of which are irrelevant. When we REFINE SEARCH as described above, we see that these 5600 hits fall into major categories such AS forest, habitat, ecosystem, lands, conservation, wildlife, etc. Since we are just beginning our exploration, we may want to conduct fresh searches for each of these concepts and use the REFINE SEARCH function once again to see what other ideas, issues and possibilities are associated with our original search phrase.

Too many searchers narrow their search prematurely, thereby condemning themselves to the boundaries and ideas of their prior knowledge.

Most of us do not understand the forest of our question well enough at this stage to start looking at individual trees and bark and leaves.

This is the time to map out the territory into conceptual zones, each of which becomes a neighborhood worthy of more carefully focused exploration.

If we have little prior knowledge of "sustainability" we could not know what we do not know and could not plan or pose the questions we ought to be exploring. We might learn some before we focus narrowly and sharply.

Our search on Altavista provides us with a much richer appreciation of the subtopics associated with sustainability and delivers a list of key words which will direct the more pointed search process.

Here are the results of our search for "sustainability."

About 46779 documents match your query.

When we REFINE the search, we find new ideas and categories . . .

stewardship - renewable - impacts - indicators

Each of these is a rich vein worthy of further investigation.


6. Browse before grazing

Early search efforts are meant to provide an overview of the information landscape relevant to the investigation at hand, much like petroleum prospectors flying over a region and noting the terrain, seeking convergence (a combination of geological elements in one location which hints at the presence of oil).

While it is tempting to start right off opening pages and looking for information, it is more effective to wait until you have scanned the brief descriptions most search engines provide for the hits. Scanning the top 100 hits provides a basis for revising the original search to accomplish two goals:

  1. exclude whole categories of irrelevant sites
  2. target more directly those pages and sites most likely to deliver a great return

Think of the first search as a pot-luck supper with a 400 foot long table. Would you step up to the very first dish and start heaping food onto your plate? Or would you browse and graze before making choices?

7. Go to the source

Some of the best sites on the Internet are not indexed by the search engines. It pays to go to such Web sites and search them directly if they would be the leading source of information on a particular topic.

One outstanding example would be the huge collection of educational research documents housed at ERIC (New AskERIC Homepage). If you perform a search for "middle school guidance" on the free Internet, you are unlikely to find much worth reading (a mere 195 hits with Altavista), while ERIC provides hundreds of abstracts of research articles from several decades.

It turns out that because many public agencies and news media Web sites do not permit access (perhaps for security reasons) to the spiders of search engines, their contents often elude the search engine's efforts as well as our own search attempts.

If you know that the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, the Seattle Times and the Los Angeles Times have all been giving careful attention to a current lawsuit such as the Justice Department suit against Microsoft, you may achieve far better results by starting your search at their Web sites rather than wasting time with a global search engine which would overlook their offerings.

After several years of looking for a good source of crime statistics using global search engines, I came to realize that I would have done better if I had started with the source . . . the Federal Bureau of Justice, a site which never showed up when I would use global search strategies. I also discovered, almost accidentally, that Money Magazine often provides better statistics on leading cities than most of the cities themselves because it publishes an annual rating of the top cities . . .

What is the best way to know what source or Web site to visit?

  • Make a list of organizations most likely to care enough about your question, issue or topic to gather and share information about it. Visit their Web sites and see what they have to offer.
  • Consult one or more of the printed Internet guides which often suggest the best sites for various subject areas such as Civil War Photographs (Library of Congress).
  • Take advantage of an index such as Yahoo to see which sites offer information on a particular subject.

8. Be discrete

After you have conducted several browsing searches, you may begin to focus your search more sharply by adding key words to your search in order to limit hits to pages distinctly relevant to your inquiry.

Careful selection and addition of key words which are discriminating, distinguishing and distinctive, puts the spotlight on just those discrete pages which match your interests. Your key words differentiate, separate and reserve only the best pages.

How different would your results be with each of the following words?

The more you particularize your search, the better your results. Adding particulars and specifics excludes all pages which do not contain those items. The advantage is sharp focus. The danger is bypassing, missing or overlooking key data.

Sometimes it pays to alternate between narrowing and broadening. After zeroing in with some particulars, zoom back out and try some different particulars.

This may also be a good time to use wild cards, truncation, the logical operator "OR" and "exact phrase" syntax.

  • wild cards and truncation - allows you to place a symbol such as an asterisk (*) at the end of a word's root, so that your search will return all variants of that word and protect your from being too sharply in focus.
  • the logical operator "OR" makes it possible to search for a list of synonyms so pages will not be eliminated just because you have been a bit too particular.
  • "exact phrase" syntax is helpful when you know exactly what you want and you are sure how the words will appear.

9. Cull your findings

The most powerful strategy for culling your original findings is the use of the logical operator "NOT" - which may be AND NOT in some search engines (Altavista).

As you browse the first 100 hits, look for patterns and groupings of irrelevant pages. In order to exclude all such irrelevant pages from your collection, add AND NOT with a series of key words contained within parentheses and divided by OR).

If you search for Mayflower do you really want all the motels, hotels, insurance companies and moving companies? If not, try the following search . . .

Mayflower AND NOT (motels OR hotels OR insurance companies OR moving companies)

10. Be playful

Power Searching is often more successful when you listen to your intuition and take chances. If you enjoy word play, you will have good luck with the trial-and-error searching process which leads to good results. Listen to your hunches. Be a Sherlock Holmes. Don't be so analytical and logical that you cannot make intuitive leaps. Digital Logic is the attempt to find order in an erratic, chaotic and disorganized information landscape.


Credits: Drawings, photographs and graphics are by Jamie McKenzie.

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