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The Trick Is . . .
Some questions are easier to answer through the web than others. If it has to do with current events, law, computers, popular culture, commercial products, organizations, or public affairs, the web offers a lot; if you're looking for scientific research or scholarly articles, you aren't as likely to find what you want (though in some fields that is changing). Fortunately, there are ways to mine the Web for the good stuff.
Because there is such a wide variety of information from so many sources on the Web, it's extremely important to evaluate what you find using the same criteria you use for all your sources.
Ironically, Web sources that seem scholarly are quite often badly out of date. The Catholic Encyclopedia, for example, is a copy of a reference work published in 1917. The library has a 2002 edition in the reference collection. The one that is free online is so old it's no longer under copyright, so it's only useful if you want information about the Catholic church in 1917. A few things have changed since then.
Tips for Successful Searching
The first question to ask is: should I use the Web for this project or not? The Web is great for some topics, but is not a good place to find literary criticism, scholarly analysis of social issues, or the kind of broad overview written by a noted scholar that a really good specialized encyclopedia can provide. In addition to its print resources, libraries often pay for resources that are accessed through the web; these aren't indexed in search engines. Some "free" sites for magazines and newspapers charge for using their archives; library databases offer them at no charge. Consider these steps as you plan a search:
- Think about what you need and which key words might describe it.
- Think about what organizations or government entities might provide information on your topic.
- Use what you find to refine your search (such as the name of an organization or a government agency).
- Limit a search to a given domain by including it in your search statement.For example, autism site:.gov will search for autism on government Websites.
- Limit a search by date using the "show search tools" link to left of your Google results
- Use Wikipedia if you have a broad topic and your search results aren't turning up good material; then see if the links at the end of the article are useful.
- Turn to Google Scholar or library database for research-based sources.
Use these strategies as you sort through your results:
- Shorten a URL to get to a root page by deleting everything after the first slash.
- Follow links to find out about the page's author or sponsoring agency.
- Examine the URL to see where it originated. For example, URLs containing .k12 are hosted at elementary and secondary schools, so may be intended for a young audience; those ending in .gov are government agencies, so tend to be "official" information. Domains may include information about what country the site is from: .au for Australia, .uk for United Kingdom, and so on
photo courtesy of stuck in customs
Some Useful Google Hacks
In addition to limiting a search by date, use these tricks.
- You can limit a search by domain: For example, to limit a search to government sites add site:.gov to your search.
- To exclude a word from a search, put a minus sign in front of it: virus -computer
- If you aren’t sure of a word within a phrase, put a * in its place: where there is no * the people perish
- You can limit a search to kind of file by adding filetype:pdf (or pptx or xls or docx or . . .)
- If you want to search for information about a site without all of your results from the site, you can exclude it from your search: breitbart -site:breitbart.com
- Google has a number of additional features on its advanced search screen, including limits by language, region and file type
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