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5. Fine tune your searches

Typing one word into one search engine and seeing what comes back is NOT searching. Good searching means spending time, using a variety of strategies, refining your search terms and evaluating what you find - then refining again. .

Some search engines allow you to narrow searches down in a way that can help you to locate exactly what you want first time. Berkeley Library Internet Searching Tips is an excellent guide to Internet research, and as with the best websites, will lead you on to other sites in the process. See their top general search engines as well: good advice from expert users.

My own top ten tips are:

  1. Use a full-text search engine like Alltheweb or Google.
  2. Take the advice in Berkeley's top general search engines when choosing a search engine.
  3. Practise refining searches - visit the 'advanced search' page of any search engine
  4. Use phrase searches frequently (two or more words in inverted commas)
  5. Put in domain restrictors: in alltheweb, type domain:uk with your search, to retrieve only UK sites, or domain:edu to retrieve only US academic sites. Can save HOURS.
  6. Search for specialist vocabulary in the field you are searching in, then use it in your search
  7. Attack the same search from different angles - change search engine, go to a subject gateway like BUBL, or a large institutional site like the BBC, visit a weblog (such as the Guardian weblog, or Metafilter and checkout links pages (such as this education links page) regularly. .
  8. Try using single-word searches to see if you are restricting too much
  9. Find articles which contain citations of a key author's work by typing in the author's name as a search
  10. Assume that there is something out there for you - keep telling yourself "I didn't look" rather than "I couldn't find".

I once had a rather irascible old landlord, who would occasionally send me into his kitchen to find a corkscrew, The World's Smallest Radio, or a half-eaten slice of Ryvita with low-sugar jam on it. I only once made the mistake of saying "I couldn't find that corkscrew/radio/Ryvita". Irritable with osteo-arthritis, emboldened by cheap sherry, and with God on his side, he screamed at me "YOU DIDN'T LOOK!!!" SEEK AND YE SHALL FIND!!! Now go back and look again!" Dougie, of blessed memory, died long before the Internet was around. He nevertheless understood an important principle of internet searching - it's the looking which you need to concentrate on, not the finding.

A webmaster friend from ballet.co and I were discussing this recently, and agreed that you probably have to allow two or three hours of skilled searching to get an idea of what's available.

Updated Sunday November 11, 2001 4:29 PM

© Jonathan Still 2001 You may quote from these pages, but if your selection includes a reference I have made to someone else's work, please make sure that the attribution is clear. By not doing so, you may implicate me in plagiarism.