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How-To Feature
How to Search the Web

By Rogi Riverstone
(March 18, 2001)

Rogi's Quote Of The Month
I'm not paid to find paper clips;
I'm paid 'cause I know
where to find 'em.*

I was hired here at "Voice" to research topics and report on them. What amazes me is that it amazes people how I find information on certain obscure subjects like Cheet-Os and paper clips.

True, I did a lot of research in college, back in the bad old days when libraries, not computers, held the only information on subjects such as literature, social sciences and the arts. I've spent many days wandering book shelves, back in the dark ages when even the library catalogues were typed or hand written onto 3x5 cards in miles of drawers.

To me, typing a research subject into a search engine and receiving hundreds of results is so easy, it feels like cheating. If I didn't drop a heavy book on my foot, wrench my knee climbing a stacks ladder or strain my back and arms with piles of books, I didn't do real research.

I'm hearing, though, from professionals whose business it is to know how to research (editors, publishers, lawyers, writers, teachers, internet services) that they are surprised by my ability to weed through URLs of unnecessary stuff and find information pertinent to my topics of discussion.

Part of me wants to keep the process mysterious and magical. After all, it would be nice to be thought of as having some intuitive sixth sense in the field of online research. That would make me a guru. Fact is, though, all I really do is read directions and follow them. Boring, huh?

But I like to teach, to share and to empower others. I know how it feels to stumble around: lost, intimidated, discouraged and overwhelmed by a task. And, let's face it, the internet can be confusing.

If, for example, I were to type the word, "cat," into a search engine, I could be reading through pages about cats (and other junk) for the rest of my life: cat toys, pictures of cats, people who saw the show "Cats", flea shampoo, lions, cat in the cradle, category, catastrophe, catamarans. See the problem? There's so much information on the web, not too little. How does one weed through the scatology to learn about cat scratch fever?

Even narrowing down the topic, by inserting adjectives, will yield strange search engine results. I wrote a Surfari on "Sleeping Cats" one issue. I waded through dozens of URLs that had nothing to do with either sleeping or cats.

Glossaries of Search Speak

As with anything, search engines have their own jargon. That is to say, they'll use terms which, while they may sound familiar (for example, "spider"), mean a whole, different thing in the search engine world. When you come across these, it's best to be ready to look up the term. Here are some search engine glossaries.

Search Engine For Your Web Site

  • when you submit your site to their engine, they will send you the code to place it on your web pages. It allows folks to search your site or search the web.

Funniest Name

  • may sound funny but it does an excellent job of searching the other search engines.

General Search Engines

  • Almost every Surfari I've ever written has liberally employed good, ol' Google. I like them because, unlike many other search engines, they don't just look at pages within their own domain. They "read" and give a thumbnail summary of the text of the page and don't depend on meta tags. I don't waste time at zillions of commercial pages. They don't trap me in browser-swallowing frames. They don't get too creative to be useful. They offer extensive help and advanced search features. And I just feel comfortable there. One of their best features is their Basic Help site. It will tell you everything you ever wanted to know about how to search. Read it, practice it, apply it to other search services.

  • I also use Here's their web site: Remove your email signature; type your search topic into the "Subject" line; send; wait a few minutes. It will reply to your email with up to fifty URLs it gathered from HotBot, AltaVista, etc.

  • Fossick searches through engines and pages that load promptly, so you don't have to curse the spinning globe. Searches can be limited to a particular nationality.

  • Ixquick It searches other search engines. Type in a word, a phrase, a wildcard.

Narrow Down Academic Subjects

  • Encarta Online Encyclopedia. Short topic "blurbs."

  • Infomine Librarians selected this directory. The options on how to search are flexible.

  • Librarians' Index to the Internet is constantly updated. I hate clicking on a dead link or an outdated source.

  • Library Of Congress has copies of every book ever printed in the U.S.A. and maybe even in English. They have a whole set of pages on how to use the library and they have a link at the top of their home page for kids and families that states, "Play Around And Learn Something." I want that carved on my tomb stone.

  • Northern Light well organized.

  • Encyclopedia Smithsonian has a huge alphabetical index of topics, a search engine and one of the most extensive collections of you-name-its in the world.

Generally Popular Or Commercial

  • dmoz owned by AOL and maintained by volunteer editors.

  • GO As it's owned by Disney, it stresses fun, lifestyle, recreation, etc.

  • Yahoo Users submit, but Yahoo doesn't review, these URLs. You'll get lots of business URLs here. That's why I don't use it for Surfaris.

Refine Keyword Search

  • Altavista at the results page, it will suggest phrase search terms to help you refine further.

  • Excite suggests word lists to refine your first search; if a hit is on topic, it will bring up similar pages.

  • HotBot SuperSearch a template to create a Boolean or phrase search, etc. You can limit the search by medium (television, newspaper, etc.), date, domain, etc.

  • FAST Search Advance Search another template.

  • Surf Wax refine term before searching; "SiteSnap" review content before clicking link.

Common Searches

  • Ask Jeeves! ask it questions, just like you'd ask a person. But you'll get stuck in frames that call up slow-loading graphics, every time. I typed in, "How do I make my own water filter?" and got lots of junk I didn't need.

  • Direct Hit gives results of sites popular with other searchers. Might be useful if the topic is "Brittany Spears," but not very useful for "social anarchy."

  • How Stuff Works told me how to make the water filter. It's pretty much an in-house search engine, but offers links to other sites on your topic. The range of information here is staggering and fascinating.

Expert Subject Pathfinders

  • subject guides, popular and commercial.

  • AlphaSearch guides you to areas of your discipline, idea or subject.

  • Argus Clearinghouse frequented by professionals such as college professors and librarians, it offers subject guides.

  • BUBL LINK a real research library, organized by Dewey number. It's British and it's focus is on The Continent (Europe).

  • WWW Virtual Library full-text documents, organized by subject. Also leads you to databases and gateways.

Verified Research Sources

Let's face it: any crack pot with remedial HTML skills can build a site with truly outlandish opinions. Just because it's on the 'net doesn't mean it's accurate, believable or worth siting in your homework or news story (unless, like me, you get to write about electric pickles). These sources are verified. They may still not be completely accurate, but at least you won't get laughed out of the room for sounding like The Lone Gunmen (just for looking like them).

  • BIOTN compiled by Catholic university librarians.

  • Social Issues Multnomah County Library's Homework Center.

Little Words

  • AltaVista How do you look up "Cousin It," "Vitamin A," "To Be Or Not To Be," "How Now, Brown Cow," and other things with such tiny words in them that most search engines (including Google) skip over them?

Particular Words

  • AltaVista go ahead; get picky. Lets you narrow your search by the inclusion of descriptive words (like: "Purple People Eater," rather than every page with the words: "Purple," "People" and "Eater" in it).


So, you don't want to know about "gore," just "Gore." These engines (unlike Google) can pay attention to capitalization.


  • Lives links you up to: biographies, autobiographies, memoirs, diaries, letters, narratives and oral histories. This site is pure gold for such subjects as social history, creative writing, inspirational pieces, role models, etc.

  • one-paragraph bios. Enough to tell the players without a program, but not enough for a paper on them.

  • Biographical Dictionary thumbnail who-is-its.

US Government

  • First Gov just remember: it's the government. It's easy to get lost and nobody can help you. But don't give up; it's a wealth of government information and also links to state and local government.

Hot Off The Presses

  • 1st Headlines search as broadly or as narrowly as you need by topic, country, breaking news.

  • Moreover nearly 2,000 online news sources' headlines.

  • Northern Light Current News updated headlines, sports, weather, etc.; archives stories for two weeks.

  • YahooNews continuous news wire updates.

Coverage In Depth

International Perspectives


Primary Sources

Who said it first, straight from the horse's mouth.

Images, Sounds



Advice and Opinion

Virtual Librarians

New Site Notification

Kid Friendly Sites

  • Alphabet SuperHighway has an e-zine, library, resource list for parents and teachers and covers just about all and any subjects.

  • Awesome Library only has 14,000 references, from kindergarten through 12 (and beyond, IMHO), on everything from Art to Zoology.

  • KidsClick!

  • Surfing The Net With Kids Barbara has put together one of the most comprehensive and useful sites on darned near everything that I've ever seen. Subscribe for her free e-zine, and you'll never run out of topics and ideas for projects and reports again. I'm addicted.

  • Yahooligans!

Search Engine Information

Related Articles

  • Net4TV Voice: Class Act Surfing: Back to School Boy, if there had been an internet when I was in school, I could have had some fun, cuz studying would have been easy!

  • Net4TV Voice: Surfari: WWWolinsky I always end up making friends with librarians, teachers and writers. Our interests are eclectic; our tastes are obscure; our conversations are convoluted and lengthy. The Wolinskys are invited to my home for a cuppa, any time.

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