Ten Steps to Better Web Research
 

Stage Two: Planning Your Research

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Step 4: Think Before You Search!


When we surveyed high school and middle school students last year, more than half of them told us they begin their research by typing a question. Often, the question was simply lifted from the homework assignment. Students read the assignment, didn’t understand it, and hoped that a search engine would magically transform the question into information they understand.

This usually doesn’t happen.

As Yogi Berra says, “If you don’t know where you’re going, you’ll probably end up somewhere else.”

So rewrite every assignment in your own words before you begin your research. This will force you to understand it, and make it much more likely that you’ll be able to identify what is helpful when you see it.  If you need help, ask your teacher, librarian, parent or classmate for help.

Then, brainstorm and make a list of key search terms, using mostly nouns, rather than verbs. Create a series of terms that you can search in combinations of two, three or more. 

When you find a good search result, look at the most important words in it, and add them to your keyword list.  Try a series of keyword combinations.

Also, keep track of the sources you review. Web-based bookmarking tools, such as Diigo and Delicious, can help you. Keeping track of sources will help you avoid repeatedly visiting the same bad sources, and will also help properly cite every source you use. 


Step 5: Use Special Search Functions to Make the Search Engines Work for You

If your assignment is to explain how bald eagles were saved from extinction, and you search “eagles,” you’ll find a lot of information about a football team from Philadelphia, an aging rock band from California and other types of eagles. You’ll also find articles about bald eagles that have nothing to do with extinction.

So if you just type a single word or a question into a search box, you are not using the full power of the search engine to find information. 

Studies show that successful researchers use more words in their search than unsuccessful ones. So use combinations of several keywords. 

Quotation marks are an excellent tool when you are looking for an exact phrase, particularly if one of the words is commonly used.

One very powerful, but undocumented, search tool, which works on both SweetSearch and Google, is the AROUND function. If you wanted to research Barack Obama's interactions with Australia, you could simply include both terms in a search, but you'd find thousands of articles in which these two terms may appear many paragraphs apart, and bear no relation to one another. But if instead you search "obama" AROUND(10) "australia" then the first results will be one in which Obama appears within ten words of Australia. NOTE: for this to work, both search terms must be in quotes, AROUND must be capitalized, and the number must be in parentheses.

On most search engines, you can narrow your search by using common words like AND, OR, NOT. However, note that most search engines presume you mean "AND" when you put two words in a search; and "OR" can generate way too many irrelevant results if not used precisely.

If you search (“bald eagles” AND extinction NOT football), you probably won’t get any search results about a football team, a rock band or golden eagles.

Also, many search engines have advanced features or special usage tips that are generally the best way to narrow search results. Read these links for advanced search tips from the most popular search engines:

Step 6: Don’t Believe Everything You Read!


Searching for information on the Internet is like detective work. You have to be skeptical. You want to find the best information you can, rather than the first thing that “looks good” or “sounds good.”

Anyone can publish anything on the Internet, cheaply and quickly. Many search results you get will be either not credible or not entirely relevant.

No one thing will tell you if a Web site can be trusted. You must examine every aspect of a site to see if the information is credible, authoritative, objective, accurate and up-to-date.

A good detective always verifies critical information by confirming it with multiple sources. If you find a few unrelated, credible Web sites in agreement on an issue, your research may be done. This is not the case if you read something just once.


Click here for Stage One: Deciding Where to Search

Click here for Stage Three: Evaluating Your Search Results
 
 

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