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Searching the Internet. MMTK Project Unit developed by Anna Feldman, for the Association for Progressive Communications. Overview. This unit aims to enable you to: Understand more about the Internet as an environment for finding information.

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Searching the Internet

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Searching the Internet

MMTK Project

Unit developed by Anna Feldman, for the Association for Progressive Communications


This unit aims to enable you to:

  • Understand more about the Internet as an environment for finding information.

  • Explore the strengths and weaknesses of different search tools: how to pick the right one(s) for the job.

  • Learn to use the tools appropriately: how to re-phrase your questions in a search tool-shaped way.

  • Evaluate the information that search tools provide: how to efficiently cream off the most relevant results.

  • Develop a strategy for building up your own well-structured bank of links for future reference: how to bypass the search tools altogether.

Internet as Information Environment

  • Lack of statistics on the amount of information on the Internet

  • No standard indexing system

  • No “direct” searching of other computers - access to search tools only

  • Search tools search through limited lists of sites

  • Information on the Internet is driven by machines, created by people

Search Tools

  • Search Engines

  • Meta-search Engines

  • Subject Directories

  • Information Gateways

  • Specialist Databases

Search Engines

  • Compiled by spiders (computer-robot programs), mechanically building database of references

  • Matches searched-for keywords with words in full text of selected web pages

  • Number of pages searched can vary from small number to 90% of the web

  • Good results are as much about understanding search syntax as the scope of the engine’s coverage

    Good For: Precision searches, using named people or organisations, searching quickly and widely, topics which are hard to classify

    Not Good For: Browsing through a subject area

Major Search Engines

  • Google

  • AltaVista

  • alltheweb

Meta-search Engines

  • Skim-search several search engines at once

  • Usually reach about 10% of results of each engine they visit

  • Cannot perform advanced-style searches which use engine-specific syntax

    Good For: quick search engine results overview, doing simple searches with 1 or 2 keywords

    Not Good For: comprehensive results from a complex search

Major Meta-search Engines

  • SurfWax

  • Ixquick

Information Gateways

  • Information gateway-type resources include Internet catalogues, subject directories, virtual libraries and gateways

  • Specialising in resources on a particular field

  • Usually searchable AND

  • Organised into hierarchical subject categories

  • Compiled by people, not robots

  • More focus on sifting for relevance and quality

    Good For: topics that fall into a thematic area that has a subject directory, guided browsing in your subject area

    Not Good For: Quickly finding information from widely varying themes

Information Gateway Examples

  • ELDIS: the Gateway to Development Information

  • Development Gateway

  • World Wide Web Virtual Library

  • SOSIG (Social Science Information Gateway)

Specialised Databases

  • Also known as the “invisible web” - pages of content not reached by robots

  • Statistics, schedules, maps, figures

  • Dynamically generated content, powered into pages on demand

  • Searchable

  • Entry pages can be found using other search tools

    Good For: Gathering specific kinds of data

    Not Good For: Browsing through a subject area


Use just one search tool for each of the following queries to start building up a picture of which tools work for which queries

Using the Tools Appropriately

7 Stage Search Strategy:

1. Unpack your query

2. Phrase your query

3. Categorise your query

4. Match a tool to your query

5. Seek advice from a relevant person

6. Try again!

7. Evaluate your results

Stage 1. Unpacking the Query

  • Ask questions to make the query clearer

  • Put the query into a single sentence

  • Break it up into concepts

  • Think of alternative terms for each of your concepts


  • Take a search query from the collection that was made at the beginning of the session. Do not take one that you wrote yourself

  • Adapt the query by asking questions, if it needs more specificity

  • Use the table in your worksheets to break it down into concepts

Stage 2. Phrase your Query

The basic principles of Search Syntax are the same for most search engines, but details can vary - always check your engine’s search tips page to be sure.

  • Narrowing parameters: “” , +, -

    “Columbian coffee pickers”

    +coffee +pickers +price +Columbia

    +coffee -cup -cotton

  • Complex Boolean searches

    OR, AND or +, NOT, “….”

  • Wild Cards


Stage 3. Categorise your Query

Does your query:

  • Include clearly distinctive words or phrases?

  • Include common terms that tend to get many inappropriate results?

  • Look for broad overviews of a subject area?

  • Look for a narrowly focused part of a broader area?

Stage 4. Match the Right Tool to the Query

  • Try and match the right tool to the type of search query you are working on.

  • Think about the way that the tool will work on your query and re-phrase the query to get the most out of the tools.

  • Try a variety of tools - use general tools to find subject-specific ones.

Stage 5. Seek Advice

Tools don’t have brains - people do!

  • No successful results from the tools online?

  • Look for an “off-ramp” to take you to a person offline:

    • an email link to a relevant expert, resource person, or page author

    • telephone number

    • postal addresses

  • Send your query to a relevant discussion list

Stage 6. Try Again!

  • Go back to the beginning

  • Retrace your steps

  • Look for turnings you may have missed

  • Re-phrase your query

  • Re-think your query

  • Check your search syntax


Using the last 5 stages of the search strategy, repeat the search query you did earlier

Stage 7. Evaluating the Results

Think before you click!

  • The Internet lacks the quality control mechanisms that exist in the print media

  • Look for “relevance” clues in the URLs of your search results, before you click.

  • Check the domain types

    .gov, .edu, .org

  • Check the publishing source

    • self published by an individual?

    • reputable source?

    • relevant source?


The following URLs are Google results from the query Indonesia “human rights”. Try making a judgement about what sort of information they link to (without clicking).

Developing your Own Online Resource Base

  • Learn from your searches: let every search contribute to the next ones.

  • Use the Bookmarks/Favorites feature of your browser.

  • Add URLs and annotations to the list.

  • Use the filing functionality to organise your resources into a logical system.

  • The list will become an incredibly valuable personalised information gateway - and a fabulous launch-pad.

Searching the Internet

MMTK Project

Unit developed by Anna Feldman, for the Association for Progressive Communications

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