History 615:


  1. Read the directions and help screens: The search engines differ, knowing the peculiarities of a particular search engine will save lots of time.
  2. Check your spelling: You can’t find anything about Grover Cleveland, if you type "Cleaveland."
  3. Understand Boolean Logic: You may have ignored this topic when it was taught in gradeschool, but it turns out to be important in searching. Understand how "and" "or" and "not" work and make use of them. (Note that not all search engines--e.g., Google--offer boolean searching.)
  4. Be As Specific As Possible: If the Search Engine, allows you to put a phrase in quotes, then do that. In Google, "I am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang" in quotes gives 1,520 hits but without quotes, it gives you 3,680 hits. Use as many words as possible: "Richard Nixon" gives you 270,000 hits; "Richard Nixon Audio" narrows it to 15,400 ; adding "crook" brings it down to 346.
  5. Use Differentiating Words: Look for words that highlight differences rather than common words; uncommon names are particularly useful. If you were interested in the Federal Theatre Project, you might do better searching under the name of the director, Hallie Flanagan. Even better, you might combine "Federal Theatre Project" AND "Hallie Flanagan" In these three searches, you go from 93,400 to 1,600 to 203 hits.
  6. If you are looking for a picture or sound file, limit your search by those categories: The procedure varies with search engine, but Alta Vista and Hot Bot both offer ways to search for just audio, images, or video. Google has an excellent image search engine in beta.
  7. The Truth is Out There: Work on the assumption that what you want is available. If you get no hits, recheck your spelling and the logic of your search. Or, try another search engine.
  8. If your search is general, try a directory: If you are in a very preliminary and broad search, you might do better with a directory like Yahoo!, NBCi, and Oingo (or a specialized page), than a comprehensive search engine.
  9. The Early Bird Gets There Faster: If possible, search when the web is not so busy; in the Northeast, the busiest times are mid-afternoon.
  10. Bookmark what looks useful: Bookmarks are a useful way to keep track of something that seems promising that you want to return to.
  11. Refine: Consider using the "refine" or "limit" feature of the search engine to narrow things down.
  12. Look in the Deep Web: An increasing amount of historical material is in the "invisible" or "deep" Web of databases that don't show up in general Web searches. You need to learn about important historical collections (e.g., American Memory in databases. (Complete Planet at http://www.completeplanet.com offers LexiBot, which claims to search the Deep Web, but it is not complete in my testing.)
  13. Look in the Private Web: There is a vast amount of historical material in proprietary databases that you can not reach on the Public Web. Our library subscribes to much of this material and http://library.gmu.edu/resources/dbase.html is your gateway to that material.

Search Engines

There are many search engine; the relative quality of search engines has varied significantly over time; the top search engines today did not exist a few years ago.

A recent PC Magazine test (http://www.zdnet.com/pcmag/stories/reviews/0,6755,2652841,00.html) rated Google(http://www.google.com) and Northern Light (http://www.northernlight.com) as "editor's choices." Google, in particular, is the clear favorite among Web "power users" because it uses a different "ranking algorithm" that tries to get at the "reputation" of the site by counting the number of sites that link to that page and the importance of those links and it also apparently has the largest database of Web pages. Northern Light's unique features are its "folders" approach to sorting results and its access to gated "special collections."

Other highly rated search engines, includeAlta Vista Advanced Search http://www.altavista.com/cgi-bin/query?pg=aq&what=web), which has powerful features for refining searches; .Fast Search (http://www.alltheweb.com), which is very fast and large HotBot (http://www.hotbot.com), which has good advanced search and personalizing features. But there are lots of other search engines with passionate defenders.

Increasingly, however, Google is emerging as the search engine of choice.

If you want to learn much more about searching, two good starting points are:

Search Engine Watch: http://www.searchenginewatch.com

and University of California, Berkeley: "Finding Information on the Internet : A TUTORIAL" at http://www.lib.berkeley.edu/TeachingLib/Guides/Internet/FindInfo.html