Effective Internet Searching


This module is a comprehensive introduction to web searching methods and techniques. Assuming no prior knowledge, the module will explain ways to find what you are “actually” looking for instead of lots of other interesting links. Searching is easy; finding what you’re looking for can sometimes be difficult. Hopefully the advice below will make your next Web Search effective. While three quarters of the Web users of the world cite finding information as their most important use of the Internet, that same percentage also cite their inability to find the information they want as their biggest frustration. The purpose of this module is to help you end that frustration. Staff at ICIMOD also indicated, during training needs assessment, Internet Searching be taken up as a priority topic.

Key topics

Part A: Tools and Effective Searching

1. Overview of the World Wide Web

2. Before Starting the Search

3. Tools for Searching

4. Which Tools should you use

5. Building your Search Strategy

6. Keywords Searching

7. Phrase Searching

8. Boolean search

9. Advanced Search/Field Searching

10. Checking the Results

11. Useful to Know

Part B: References

Part C: Practical Exercise – Lets Start Searching!

Part A

1. Overview of World Wide Web

The Internet isn’t just about data; it is an international community of people who share information, interact, and communicate. From the point of view of its users, the Internet is a vast collection of resources–people, information, and multimedia.

The Internet is an inter-connected network of networks, the World Wide Web is the “virtual” web linking these networks. Each machine (or group of machines – example ICIMOD computers connected to the net via V-SAT) on a network has a unique “address” from which it can request and receive information. A Web “browser” is a client program that requests information from other computers which temporarily function as “servers” sending the information upon request. The Web has existed for a long time, but its exponential use and growth began in 1995 when graphical Web browsers (like Netscape, Internet Explorer) became more popular. At ICIMOD, Internet Explorer is the widely used web browser. With these graphical web browsers, the Internet mainly web became “user friendly”, and people began to develop and publish web sites and web pages. Hyperlink is the advantage of the web pages. Hyperlink is the element in a webpage that links to another page/place in the same website or to an entirely different website. Typically, you click on the hyperlink to follow the link.

There are billions of web sites on the net. With billions of web pages online, you could spend a lifetime surfing the Web, following links from one page to another. Amusing perhaps, but not very efficient if you are after some specific information. One of the biggest problems we experience is the difficulty of finding targeted/specific information. Where do you start from? Searching

Searching the Internet requires skill, luck and a little bit of art.

2. Before Starting the Search

The easiest way to find information is when you know a web page Internet address or URL (Uniform Resource Locator) such as ICIMOD home website. You can find these addresses on business cards, email signatures, or newspapers. Simply type the URL in the browser’s address box and hit the key. If you do not know the URL, you’ll have to find it by searching the Internet. In many cases, a simple search on the name of an organization within most search engines will return a direct hit on their web site.

3. Tools for Searching

There are many search tools available:

· Web Directories / Virtual Library / Library Gateways

· Search Engines / Meta-search engines

· Deep web databases

‘Web Directories’ (subject directory) are the repositories of useful web sites arranged into a hierarchical, subject-based structure. They require people to view the individual Web site and determine its placement into a subject classification scheme or taxonomy. Once done, certain keywords associated with those sites can be used for searching the directory’s data banks to find Web sites of interest.

For searches that are easily classified, such as vendors of sunglasses, the search directories tend to provide the most consistent and well-clustered results. This advantage is generally limited solely to those classification areas already used in the taxonomy by that service. Yahoo, for example, has about 2,000 classifications (excluding what it calls ‘Regional’ ones, which are a duplication of the major classification areas by geographic region) in its current taxonomy. The Open Directory Project has nearly 590,000 categories and 5,142,051 sites. Some widely used web directories are:

Google™ Directory

Open Directory Project (ODP) – the biggest web directory



Virtual library is a web directory that includes highly selective links, chosen mostly by librarians. Use library gateways when you are looking for high quality information sites on the Web. You can be fairly certain that these sites have been reviewed and evaluated by subject specialists for their accuracy and content. Popular virtual libraries include:

Librarians’ Index to the Internet


Internet Public Library

The WWW Virtual Library

Funded by Danida and Sida and hosted by the Institute of Development Studies, Sussex, Eldis offers a large collection of resources for 40 development-related sectors

SD Gateway contains over 1200 documents relating to sustainable development, NGOs

Mountain Forum’s Online Library, for articles and publications on global mountain issues

Search engines index each work within all or part of documents. When you pose a query to a search engine, it matches your query works against the records it has in its databases to present a listing of possible documents meeting your request. Search engines are best for searches in more difficult topic areas or those which fall into the gray areas between the subject classifications used by directories. But, search engines are stupid, and can only give you what you ask for. You can sometimes get thousands of documents matching a query. Also, at best, even the biggest search engines only index a small fraction of the Internet’s documents.

It is important to remember that when you are using a search engine, you are NOT searching the entire web as it exists at this moment. You are actually searching a portion of the web, captured in a fixed index created at an earlier date.

Popular search engines currently are:




Meta-search engines do not crawl the web compiling their own searchable databases. Instead, they search the databases of multiple sets of individual search engines simultaneously, from a single site and using the same interface. Meta-searchers provide a quick way of finding out which engines are retrieving the best results for you in your search

Deep web (or invisible web or hidden web databases) is the name given to pages on the World Wide Web that are not indexed by conventional search engines. It consists of pages which are not linked to by other pages, such as Dynamic Web pages. Dynamic Web pages are basically searchable databases that deliver Web pages generated just in response to a query.

4. Which Tools You Should Use

If you’re looking for specific information, use search engines (e.g. paper presented on biodiversity in 2005 ABCD conference. You would also use a keyword search for obscure subjects, cross-category searches (e.g. mountain and GIS, environment and soil)

If you’re looking for general information on popular topics, use subject (web) directories. You could also use in cases, where you do not know any keywords related to a subject

Use virtual library/Library gateways when you are looking for high quality information sites on the Web. You can be fairly certain that these sites have been reviewed and evaluated by subject specialists for their accuracy and content.

If you’re looking for a unique or obscure search term or if you want to make an in-depth analysis of what’s out there in the Web on a specific subject, then use metasearch engines.

If you’re looking for real-time information or for dynamically changing content such as the latest news, phone book listings, available airline flights, etc., then use deep databases (invisible or deep web.)

5. Building Your Search Strategy

Your ability to find the information you seek on the Internet is a function of how precise your queries are and how effectively you use search services. Poor queries return poor results; good queries return great results. Search results are only as good as the query you pose and how you search. There is no silver bullet.

The information professionals at the University of California at Berkeley recommend a graduated approach to Web searching. Here is their stepwise sequence of steps to follow, which we generally endorse for beginning searchers:

1. ANALYZE your topic to decide where to begin

2. Pick the right starting place

3. Learn as you go & VARY your approach with what you learn

4. Don’t bog down in any strategy that doesn’t work

5. Return to previous strategies better informed.

As you gain experience, you can begin cutting out the middle steps. By the time you’re doing real heavy lifting with your queries, you really only need spend some time first getting your query right and then cutting to the bottom line with a full Boolean search using phrases and three or so concepts linked through the AND operator and multiple search engines.

Following these guidelines, here are recommended steps to approaching the Internet search challenge:

· Spend time BEFORE your search to analyze what it is you’re looking for

· Use nouns in your queries – the who/what, when, where, how and why; avoid conjunctions, verbs, adverbs and adjectives

· Use keywords at the right “level” of specificity: precise, but not overly restrictive

· Use phrases where natural; they are your most powerful weapon

· Use structured (“Boolean”) syntax, especially the ‘AND’ operator

· Constrain your search by using two or three related, but narrowing, concepts in your query

· BUT, generally, keep overall query length limited to six to eight keywords maximum

· Use advanced search options and specialty features when appropriate

· For difficult searches, use only search engines that support Boolean syntax, or tools or metasearchers that do

· For specific topic searches, consider search engines tailored to those topics

6. Keywords Searching

Despite all the gobbledygook about things like ‘Boolean’ and implied operators, the most difficult – and fundamental – aspect of a search are the keywords used in your query. Mastering the concepts behind a search is not as complicated as may seem at first. The first few searches are perhaps difficult, but, once done, the nuggets behind your information request start becoming clear. Like riding a bike for the first time, it does take some practice.

Before typing the keywords, take your time and brainstorm relevant words. Create a list of search terms. Write them down. A few seconds of brainstorming could save you minutes or hours of retrieving irrelevant results.

What are the characteristics to look for while purchasing a diamond? You could underline the main concepts, thus – What are the characteristics to look for while purchasing a diamond. Select synonyms and variant words, if required- (quality, features) (buying, procuring).

Formulate a query with simple concept/words first, e.g. Search words – “diamond buying guide” is good enough.

7. Phrase Searching

A very effective way to increase the relevance or precision of “hits” is to search as a phrase. In most cases simply means putting quotation marks around the search terms. “internet searching” is a different search than internet searching in most search engines. What you are actually doing by searching as a phrase is using the concept of proximity which concerns the terms’ physical closeness to one another (that is, their proximity). A document with internet searching occurring close or next to each other are more likely to be on target than a document with internet in the title and searching buried in the text.

Find the number of listing decreased from 30,100,000 to 977,000 when using the phrase for searching internet searching.

8. Boolean search

Boolean searching is an implementation of Boolean logic and set theory. Boolean operators, such as AND, OR and NOT are used to combine search sets in a variety of ways and appear within Internet search engines in a range of disguises. A very brief overview:

Search phrase: cats AND dogs or cats dogs

means find web pages in which both terms occur

Search phrase: cats OR dogs

means find web pages in which either term occurs

Search phrase: cats NOT dogs (use cats -dogs in Google as NOT is not supported)

means find web pages in which the term dogs appears but not cats

Most web search engines have the capability to implement these basic Boolean operators but may present them in a different way. You will almost always need to go to an “Advanced” search function to use true Boolean operators; however, you may be able to search using implied Boolean using the symbols + (must include) or – (exclude) from the “Basic” search interface.

Note: these Boolean operators are often presented as options like “include all the words,” (AND operator) “include any of the words,” (OR operator) and “exclude” (NOT operator).

While you might expect that search engines default to an implied AND (which means if you enter 2 search terms it returns documents in which they BOTH occur) in fact this is not always the case — some search engines default to the initially unhelpful OR (it returns documents in which EITHER occur)

Use an *, known as a wildcard, to match any word(s) in a phrase (enclosed in quotes) especially with Google.

Search phrase: “Mountain * poverty”

means find web pages containing a phrase that starts with “mountain” followed by a word(s), followed by “poverty”

Phrases that fit include: “mountain alleviating poverty”, “mountain areas poverty”, “mountain areas remained in poverty”

9. Advanced Search / Field searching

Remember that a web search engine is only as good as its database and indexes. Databases are collections of records organized in a similar manner; simply put, this means they are divided into fields that contain the same information in each record. If data is entered into a separate field you can retrieve it using its field label. This means that if you want to search by title, the search engine looks in a special title index (or searches notations that indicate that the term occurs in the title field) where it has collected data from the field with the label title. Many keyword search engine also have an “advanced search” option, also called field searching. This will enable you to specify where keywords should appear, allowing greater control over the results.

Field searching is so wonderful because you can specify where to look in the web document; for example, in the title only, or the URL fields. Field searching allows you to be very specific about where you want you terms to occur and hence is a very powerful tool.

Field Searching is also the technique used in searching databases. Particularly, sites sharing databases provide this as a search tool inside a website. For instance, to search ICIMOD’s Library database or Mailing List Database or even FAO’s publications database, field searching is provided.


Nesting is using brackets with Boolean operators, to make your search query syntax more meaningful and precise. For example, pan pizza and either coke or ice-cream, and cheese

Simple just type in “pan pizza” AND coke OR ice-cream AND cheese. But, this syntax will be confusing to search engines as it can be interpreted with many meanings – it may mean pan pizza and coke, or coke and cheese, so we use brackets to separate the blocks – “pan pizza” AND (coke OR ice-cream) AND cheese. Just remember your high school arithmetic.

10. Checking the Results

Now you have a tough job. After a search, you have to decide which of the search results will take you to the most informative site. Your best bet is to take a look at the title and description of the page. Are they relevant to your search? If yes, open the page. If not, check the next result, by scrolling down on the right side of the browser.

To view a page you have two options

1. Click on the title of the page – even if says “No title” or “?????”. Place the cursor on the page title and the cursor will change to the picture of a hand. Usually the links are in blue and underlined, but often they are not.

2. The second method is to open the page in a new browser window. Right-click over the title of the result. This produces a pop-up menu. Select “open (link) in new window.” After checking the result, close the new browser window. You will still have the first window browser with your search.

If you use the first method most likely you will not use the back button to go back to the results page, but instead you will simply close the window, losing the search page altogether.

What to do when you get TOO MANY results

It’s common to receive millions of results, often unrelated to the search. To receive more relevant results you’ll have to refine or even rethink the search. Here are some ideas to help you refine your search:

Add one or more descriptive words to your query.

Use phrases. Enclose two or more words that can appear in exact order within double quotation marks.

Use Boolean Operator as you want to be specific or Exclude words with NOT or implied Boolean.

Use the search tool’s “advanced search” functions. Limit your search by language, date or by field searching: title, URL, link etc.

What to do when you get TOO FEW results

Sometimes you will get messages like “Your search did not match any documents” or “No pages were found containing your query” or “No results.” Other times you may get few or irrelevant results. What should do you do:

· Check the spelling of the query. Some search engines automatically detect misspelled words and will show the correct spelling. Just click on the suggested word or words.

· Delete the least important word from the query.

· If you used a search phrases try eliminating the double quotes.

· Use more general terms, alternate spellings, plural forms or synonyms. “Google™ has recently introduced a new advanced search feature that allows you to not only search for a particular keyword but also for its synonyms. Just place the “~” (tilde) mark directly in front of the keyword in your search query. For example, “UN ~vacancies” not only searches for “UN vacancies”, but also for “UN job opportunities”, “UN employment opportunities” and “UN Jobs”

Evaluating the Results

First of all, don’t believe everything you read on the Internet. Be careful what you believe. Governmental agencies, educational institutions, libraries and prestigious publications are the most reliable sources of information. Be circumspect with information found on personal sites stored in free hosts.

Tips on evaluating a site resource

1. Is the web site published by an authoritative source?

2. Is the author a recognized expert in the field or subject area?

3. Is the information relevant, credible and accurate? It doesn’t hurt to cross check two to three additional, reliable sources.

4. Is the site current and recently updated?

5. Does the site have a professional “look and feel”: structure, layout, colour scheme, navigation menu(s), etc.? Are there spelling, grammar or punctuation errors?

6. Does the site have contact information such as a postal address, phone or email?

Rest assured that finding information on the Web is never a question of luck. Instead it is the result of a thorough understanding of how search tools work, combined with mastering the art of creating a targeted search query. Searching the Web is not difficult. Like any task, you simply must press the right buttons.