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ONLINE SEARCH TECHNIQUES: Basic Search Techniques

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Basic Techniques for Any Search Engine

Keyword searching is what most people are familiar with. It is what most people do when they search for something in Google or Bing or even a library catalog. Keyword searching is basically entering a few important terms into the search box and allowing the search engine to find all items that contain all of those terms. In a general search engine this will result in millions of results. The problem is that the most relevant item to you may be number 2,800,000 and most people don’t look a past the first 2 pages of results. In the library catalog and its search engine, we use the keywords to get to the most relevant items, but then we will search for similar items using “subject searching”. It is far more precise and produces more relevant items, but I will discuss it in the advanced search techniques page.

Author or title searching is fairly straight forward, you enter the name of the author and some bits of the title in the search box and allow the search engine to do its magic. Unless you are using the advanced search feature of a search engine, this really is just a keyword search and the search engine is just looking for a match to all parts of your query that is the name and title of the book. What most people don’t realize is that in the library catalog the author’s name should appear in the reverse order, that is, last name first, followed by a comma and one space and then the first name. So, it should be Shakespeare, William, not William Shakespeare. The computer will find it, but it might also include people named William that wrote about Shakespeare and such.

Phrase searching is one step better than just keyword searching. This is when you have an exact phrase that you are looking for. It may just be two words, but they need to appear in the right order. To perform a phrase search, you just put the entire query into quotation marks. This will force the search engine to find that exact match. So, if you word your search wrong you will get bad results. There are problems with phrase searching in that people often have variations of a quote or got the lyrics wrong to a song. It happens. When the results are wrong, I suggest trying the phrase as a keyword search, with all the words in the right order and hopefully the right results will appear.

Something that most people overlook, until they are desperate, is the “help” or “tips” link on a search page. That help box can often lead you to understanding that specific search engine and will help you understand if it uses any special characters or if the engine is built for specific purposes. There are thousands of search engines out there and some are meant for searching for people or government documents. There may even be some just for sports information. So, take the time to explore the “help” feature and discover more about the search engine and its functions.

One thing that often appears in a “help” screen is a list of wildcards and truncation. A wildcard is a filler. You know how you can play a card game and “2’s are wild”. That means that if you hold a 2, it can be used in place of any other card. So it is with wildcards and search engines. A specific character can stand in place of a single character, multiple characters or even whole words. This is especially helpful when the English word may have an American spelling and a British spelling. Is Jesus the savior of the world or saviour? Is it the color grey or the colour gray? For truncation, a special character, often the asterisk, is used to replace the end of words. So, if you don’t know if you want "biology" or "biological" you stop at the end of the root of the word and add the special character, e.g. biolog*. The results will include all the different results with all the different endings.

In some search engines there is even a way to look for synonyms. In Google you place a tilde, "~", in front of the word in question and it will give results for that word and many of its synonyms. This is great when you don’t know exactly the keyword that you are looking for. In our own library, within our EBSCO hosted databases, there is a checkbox for, “apply related terms”. This, in essence, searches for synonyms.

Basic Techniques for Life Pacific's Library's Search Engines

Keyword searching is a great start to research in our WorldCat catalog. A few good keywords will lead you to a few titles that are related to your topic. From those few items you will learn how to look for their subject headings (a narrow topic defined by Library of Congress and some other groups). Subject searching is discussed in the Advanced Search page.

Author and Title searching is best done in our advance search pages of any of our catalogs. Those catalogs have dedicated fields to searching for just authors and just titles.

Phrase searching is also enabled in all of our catalogs.

Each of the various search engines/catalogs use their own set of wildcards. You will need to look at the "helps" or "tips" and search for wildcards. In general (not true for all of our catalogs), the asterisk is for truncation, the question mark replaces a single character and sometimes, the hashtag can replace one or more characters.

And lastly, though not about searching online, but about searching. Understand that the library does have an organization to it. We arrange all our materials according to the Dewey Decimal Classification System. Dewey basically classified books into the seven liberal arts and 3 technical arts. Those 10 divisions are then broken further into related topics. So, if items have similar call numbers then they likely have very similar topics. This is really helpful when browsing the shelf. If you find one good book, check to its left or right and it is most likely going to be another relevant book.

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