Disclaimer: The information on this page is constantly under revision as the internet evolves then the tools, tricks, and tips of the cyber sleuth adjust accordingly.
Finding information online seems like a simple task, but sometimes the information isn’t exactly what you expected to find. Understanding how search engines work can improve your search efficiency as well as knowing some of the tricks and short-cuts used by search engines can improve the quality of your results.
Search Engines: Crawlers
Search engines utilize computer programs to scan websites and the information found on those sites. These programs are called crawlers, bots, or spiders. The crawlers collect the information and then use complex algorithms to categorize and index the information so that it can be parsed when you search a term or phrase on the search engine. Google is the most popular search engine in the world.
What you may not know is that website owners can actually tell crawlers to skip indexing their site. This is done through a bit of specialized code set in the background. There are other types of websites that don’t generally show up in a commercial search engine.
Information can be stored in a database and only be accessible via a specialized webpage built to access the database. Another example would be an organization’s internal website (i.e., intranets, intrawebs, portals, SharePoint, etc.). These types of sites are part of a larger portion of the internet found below the surface level of the internet. This is called the Deep Web and while the information is not readily accessible through a search engine, the information is not necessarily being hidden on purpose. The Deep Web includes private social media profiles and articles in subscription-based online newspapers.
Not to be confused with the Deep Web is the Dark Web. Unlike the Deep Web, this information is intentionally being hidden from typical internet use and requires specialized software to access. This article from AVG does a great job explaining both the good and bad of the Dark Web.
Specialized Search Engines
Besides standard search engines, there are specialized tools for searching specific types of information.
- Targeted Search Engine
- This type of search engine for a specific website, collection of websites, or entire organization.
- Example: USA.gov
- Image Search
- Reverse Image Search
- Use these tools to find webpages based on an image.
- Google Reserve Image Search, https://support.google.com/websearch/answer/1325808
- Tineye, https://tineye.com/
- Reverse Music Search
- You hear a song and want to know who sings it? Search it!
- Google Sound Search, https://support.google.com/googleplaymusic/answer/2913276
- Midomi, https://www.midomi.com/ (allows you to hum or sing for your search)
- Academic Literature
- These tools automatically narrow the search window to research and peer-reviewed articles.
- Google Scholar, https://scholar.google.com/
- There are many other search engines in this category, but most require a fee.
- Academic Search Complete, JSTOR, Gale Group, etc.
- Computational Knowledge Engine
- A different breed of search engine with currently only one major player, Wolfram Alpha, can used to answer factual queries to generate answers by using information curated from the internet. While it tends to excel at mathematics, logic, and science questions, it can be used for answering almost anything.
- Wolfram Alpha, https://www.wolframalpha.com/
- Million Short allows you to remove the top sites from a Google search – ranging from the top 100 t0 the top million sites. This allows you to quickly dig into less popular sites. https://millionshort.com/
- Pillbox is operated by the National Institute of Health and allows you to search medicines by the shape, color, and markings on a pill. https://pillbox.nlm.nih.gov/
- SearchTeam allows people to search the internet collaboratively. http://searchteam.com/
Fine-Tuning a Search: Search Bias
Search bias is caused by how we phrase a search query. For example, if we search “are pens better than pencils” then we will get much different results than if use “are pencils better than pens” for our search term. This can lead us to information that is inaccurate.
Below is an example of searching “is pie better than cake” versus “is cake better than pie”. First, we have a difference of 15 million websites between the two searches and we get several articles that appear in both. But, there is definitely a slant to the information creating a confirmation bias based on how you asked the question. Being aware of this issue is a big step for efficient and effective searches.
Fine-Tuning a Search: Search Operators
One of the tricks to more efficient searches is knowing and using the search operators. These are variables you can use to narrow and focus your search results.
- The minus symbol (-). Placed directly before a word, this minus sign will remove search results that contain that world. For example cowboys -dallas will return all search results that contain cowboys but remove any sites that also contain Dallas.
- Quotes (“). Putting a phrase within quotes will narrow the search to that exact phrase.
- Site. You can narrow your search to a specific website. For example, using site:tcea.org virtual reality will pull all pages from TCEA’s website that contain the words virtual and reality.
- Link. This search operator will allow to find websites that link to a specific URL. For example using link:tcea.org will list all the webpages that contain a link to that website.
- Intitle. A lesser known search operator is intitle. This will allow you to find articles with the keywords in the title. For example intitle:happy will find websites with the word happy in the title.
- The asterisk (*). Adding an asterisk to either end of a word and the search will include words the begin or end with that word respectively.
- The tilde (~). Adding this to the beginning of a word will search related terms. For example, searching ~college might also search higher education and university.
There are many more search operators and I have some sites in the resources below, but the real power in search operators is combining them to narrow your search.
If you want to find documents discussing the how to search the internet as it relates to digital literacy then a possible search might be:
filetype:doc OR filetype:pdf “how to search” intitle:”digital literacy”
The most popular search engine, Google has a service, Trends, that allows you to compare search terms across a country or even the entire world. Trends also allows you to see trends over varying periods of time.