Lesson 1  Introduction to Searching

       The information on the web is growing and being updated every day. There are millions of web pages and there is a lot of great information. However, one of the most noticeable problems with the web today is the difficulty in finding a specific piece of information. Unlike a library, there is no central card catalog for the web and it follows no organizational standard. Instead, search tools are used to locate information on the web. For the most part, they are fast, easy to use and open 24 hours a day. A search tool performs searches of the Internet based upon input by the user. This input might include topics, keywords or phrases, or any other type of search criteria. Some of the difficulty in finding information is going away because the tools for locating information are maturing, becoming more powerful and sophisticated every day. Because of the enormous amount of information out there, search tools are indispensible.

       This module will introduce you to some of the basic tools currently available for finding information, as well as some basic techniques for performing a search. Familiarity with these tools and techniques will increase your chances of finding the information that you are looking for.

       There are numerous tools available for finding information on the web, and each of these operates somewhat differently. Some of the tools use a comprehensive approach and try to include all of the information on the web. Other tools only cover a narrow subject matter, for example, there is a tool specific for finding conferences sponsored by the Microsoft Corporation. The results of your search will depend on the type of search tool you are using. Because there is such a wide range of tools available and we cannot cover each of them, this module will focus on two representative tools:


       Yahoo is very good at finding general information, because it organizes web sites into popular categories. If you wanted to find the Walt Disney home page, Yahoo would be a good tool to use. In comparison, AltaVista is much more comprehensive. If you wanted to find the name of the producer for Walt Disney's movie "The Lion King", AltaVista would be a good tool to use. These two tools demonstrate many of the features found in other search tools and you should be able to apply this knowledge to other tools.

Approaches to Searching
       It is easy to get confused when you begin learning about search tools because there are so many terms. This includes terms like "search engines", "meta indexes", "web guides", "directories", etc. The value of spending a lot of time on these terms is questionable as they are often vaguely defined and misused. Although we will attempt to explain several terms, at this point in your learning, you should not be overly concerned about all of the terms, but rather how to perform a search.

       Therefore, rather then dwelling on specific terms, let's look at two general approaches to finding information on the web. These approaches can be used to find the same information, however, each one has its advantages and disadvantages. Many search tools now support both approaches. For the duration of this module we will refer to these approaches as "browsing" and "keyword searching", however, as you spend more time on the Internet, you will see many other names for these same approaches and their variations.

Searching by Browsing

       Searching by browsing is a lot like surfing the web. You start out looking at a very wide range of topics and after following six or seven links you have narrowed your attention to a specific web site. If the specific site does not contain the information you are looking for you can back up and focus your attention on a different page. The search tools that support the browsing approach organize the web sites into categories and sub-categories. You start out with the most general categories and work your way through a series of categories until you get to the information you are looking for. Normally this approach implies that you have some background information related to your search and can identify which categories it will belong to.

       For example, you might use the browsing approach to find information on the play "Romeo and Juliet". The top-level category might be "Literature", with a sub-category for "Authors" and so on. See the example below:

top-level category "Literature"
sub-category "Authors"
sub-sub-category "Playwrights"
sub-sub-sub-category "Shakespeare"
sub-sub-sub-sub-category "Romeo and Juliet"

This approach works well for this simple search because the categories were easy to identify and there were a small number of sub-categories.

       Subject Directories, such as Yahoo, are good for this type of searching because they are good at identifying general information. They group web sites together under similar categories, such as Internet Tutorials, English Universities and Paris Museums. The results of your search will be a list of web sites related to the subject you are searching for.

Keyword Searching

       In comparison, keyword searching provides a more direct approach. Most search tools employ a search engine which is a web accessible program that searches a database (index) of words and phrases from web documents, attempting to match key words that you supply. They provide a search entry box where you can enter a word (or, a few words). The tool will then produce a list of resources that contain that word. Occasionally, all of these resources are relevant to the information you were looking for, however, most often only a portion of the list will be relevant. At this point you will have to sort through the list to find the results that contain the information you are looking for. This approach can be much faster than browsing, however, depending on the keywords you select, and the number of "hits" returned, it can be much slower. In addition to sometimes being faster, this approach does not require as much background information. For example, you could use keyword searching to find information about the book "Crime and Punishment" even if you didn't know the author.

       If you are interested in locating the site for the Louvre museum, for instance, you might use the browsing approach. But let's say you want more specific information, such as biographical information about Leonardo da Vinci. A keyword search is the way to go, because all the contents of a website will be searched.

Next: Lesson 2 - An Introduction to Yahoo!

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