Searching the Web

In Global Perspectives, Maps101 by mapsbecky

The internet can be a useful way to find information to complete school assignments. Not all information online, however, is accurate and reliable. Search engines use a complicated set of directions, or algorithms, to find sites that are more accurate and reliable.

Many students use the internet to complete school assignments. People can use online tools called search engines to help find sites that are more likely to be accurate and reliable.

The English language is always changing. One area in which it changes especially quickly is computer science. Because of recent advances in computer technology, some now familiar words might have been meaningless not long ago. One of these words is the verb google.

Lots and Lots of Information

Google means to look for information online using a search engine. At first it meant looking for information using the search engine Google. Now, however, many people use the verb google to mean any web search regardless of the search engine used. This commonly used verb is a newcomer to the English language. Google was added to the dictionary in 2000—not even 20 years ago!

When it is a noun, Google refers specifically to the company called Google. Along with Yahoo, Bing, Ask, and other websites, Google is a search engine. A search engine is a computer program that locates information online. The user inputs a question, sentence, or simple words into a query. The search engine returns a list of web pages that include the terms from the user’s query.

Reliability

Designing a search engine isn’t simple. It must quickly navigate an enormous amount of information online. Also, it must direct a user to reliable information. Like a library, the internet contains lots of useful and interesting information. However, there are some big differences between them.

Unlike the books in your school’s library, information on the web is not always reliable. School library books are usually written by well-known and respected experts.

When you are online, you can’t always be sure whether the information was provided by an expert, or whether it is biased. It is important to keep an eye out for bias, or the personal opinions of the people or businesses who sponsor a web page. For example, some websites may seem reliable but are actually maintained by businesses hoping to sell their products. They may be created by people or groups with a particular point of view or agenda.

Also, online information varies in quality. Some very reliable pages are maintained by famous scholars or well-known publishers, academic institutions, departments of government, or museums. However, other pages are created by people who are not experts in a subject. Even though the information you find looks like facts, sometimes it is little more than the writer’s opinion. Also, after experts write a book, editors and proofreaders carefully check that all of the information included is accurate before the book is printed and sold. Online information likely was not checked by an editor or proofreader for errors.

In addition, a school’s library is organized in a way that makes it easy to find information. Books may be organized by subject, alphabetized by author, or in some other way that makes them easy to find. Without the help of editors, proofreaders, or librarians, people have to perform some of these tasks themselves when searching online.

How Search Engines Work

Search engines help people do research online. A search engine uses a mathematical tool called an algorithm. An algorithm is a list of steps or directions. When a person or a computer follows these steps, they can then solve a problem or perform a certain task. Once an algorithm is programmed into a computer, a computer is able to complete a task faster than any human being can. As a result, search engines can quickly evaluate information from millions of websites.

A search engine’s algorithm uses specific steps to decide whether a website is useful or not, based on the search parameters. One way search engines do this is to identify websites called authorities and hubs. An authority is a website to which many other web pages refer. A hub, on the other hand, is a website that, even though it does not contain information about a subject itself, leads users to authoritative pages. Hub pages help users find useful websites.

By looking at how a site is related to authorities and hubs, the search engine decides whether the information it contains is useful or not. When you use a search engine, the first websites provided are more likely to contain the information you need. Pages at the top of the list will have many other web pages that refer to it. Pages ranked higher are expected to be more more useful than those ranked lower.

Boolean operators can help you find the information you need more quickly when using a search engine. This chart uses Venn diagrams to show how the operators AND, OR, and NOT are different from one another.

Boolean operators can help you find information online more quickly when using a search engine. This chart uses Venn diagrams to show how the operators AND, OR, and NOT differ from one another. A search using “AND” would find websites with both terms, a search using “OR” would find websites with either or both terms, while “NOT” would find websites including one term but not the other.

Tips for Better Searches

No matter how advanced the technology, a search engine depends on the person using it. It is important to select terms for your query that will best lead you to the information you need. If your search terms are too general, you may end up with many results that are not useful to you. For example, if you are researching the current water shortage in Cape Town, South Africa, searching for the word water results in tens of thousands of web pages. However, if you instead search for the terms Cape Town water shortage 2018, you will more quickly get to pages with the information you need.

A simple way to improve your web searches is to use Boolean operators. In the nineteenth century, English mathematician George Boole developed a system of words and symbols to help people find information more efficiently. The three most basic Boolean operators are OR, AND, and NOT.

The operator OR has a different meaning than the word or that we use in communication. If your friend’s father asks you whether you want soup or salad with your dinner, you understand that you may have either soup or salad, but not both. In a web search, OR means either term or both of the terms. When you enter soup OR salad into a search engine, the results will contain the word soup, the word salad, or the words soup and salad. When you perform a web search without any Boolean operators, most search engines assume you mean OR. You do not need to actually enter it.

The operator AND can help you narrow a search. By using AND, the search engine will return only pages that have all of your search terms. For example, search for Phoenix AND Arizona, and each resulting web page will have both words within it. Instead of keying AND, you can also use your computer’s + (plus) sign instead.

The operator NOT helps exclude results that you don’t need. If a word appears after the operator NOT in a query, the search engine will exclude pages that contain that word. For example, if you wanted to find information about the British island of Jersey, you could avoid pages about the U.S. state of New Jersey by searching for Jersey NOT New. Instead of keying NOT, you can also use your computer’s – (minus) sign.

Even with Boolean operators and complicated algorithms, web searches still require good judgment. Sometimes websites include hidden information that can trick a search engine into thinking that a web page is useful or reliable when it really isn’t. For example, a search for the term water might result in a website selling a particular brand of bottled water or a new movie that has the word water in the title. When in doubt, ask a teacher, librarian, or parent whether the information you’ve found is reliable or not.

Additional Resources

Read more about internet search engines at Britannica and the BBC.

Discover more ways to improve your web searches at Indiana Wesleyan University and Harvard University.

How can you tell whether a website is reliable or not? Find out at Michigan State University and the University of Edinburgh.

Images and Sources

Students in Computer Lab Photo: Bartmoni
Students in Computer Lab Photo License: Creative Commons 3.0