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Internet Research Guide
Part 3

The World Wide Web

The most familiar tool the Internet makes possible is the World Wide Web, or, more commonly, the Web. The Web is hard to describe because it has become so many things. It is like countless libraries, shopping malls, bulletin boards, businesses, newspapers, TV stations, and a million other things all packed together in a virtual space. There seems to be little in the way of order or organization when it comes to the Web, and thus it is important to have a plan of attack when you decide to use the Web as a research resource.

As the metaphorical name suggests, the "Web" can tangle you up if you're not careful, since there are so many web sites out there and so many links to follow within each of those web sites.

Surfing and browsing
Search engines
Boolean searches
Generality and specificity
Practice: Developing search strings


Surfing and Browsing

Some unfortunate metaphors have stuck to the Web. Surfing, for example, is not the kind of activity you'd want to associate with doing web research. You don't want to be casually gliding around the Internet if you are trying to research a specific topic. Begin the process of research by deciding on the following:
  • what kind of information you want to find
  • how general or specific you want it to be
  • whether you need expert or authoritative opinion
  • what kinds of sources will most likely have the information you want

Along the same lines, when you are doing research on the Web, avoid browsing. You don't want your web research time to be spent meandering among different web sites, as you might browse through stores on a holiday shopping trip. Again, have a clear sense of what you need and where to start looking first.

Search Engines

One of the less problematic metaphors used in association with the Web is searching. Searching the Web usually begins by using one of many search engines. (Imagine engines in place of surf boards.)

Whatever topic you need to do research on, the best place to start is at one of the Web's search engines. Here's a list of just some:

There are many more than just these, and, thanks to the rapid expansion of the Web, there are new search engines developing regularly. All search engines operate in roughly the same manner, however. They require that you enter a search string, a word or phrase, for which the engine will search in millions of web sites.

Boolean searches

Since there are so many web sites on the Internet, and since part of your research plan is to avoid surfing and browsing, you often need to be selective in terms of developing your search string. For example, a search for "cars" on yielded over ten thousand results. A search for "government" on yielded 6,015,983 results.

To customize your search, use Boolean operators (originally developed by the mathematician George Boole to delineate sets). These include and, or, and not. If you are searching for information on vehicle emissions, you might try searching for "cars and emissions" to find sites dealing with both of those terms. A search for "cars or emissions" will yield very broad search results, since any site with one or the other term will appear. If you are searching for information on periodical publishing, but not magazines, then a search for "periodicals not magazines" would be more effective than simply "periodicals."

Most beneficial might be to read the search tips (or help) offered on most search engine home pages. A couple of minutes spent early on can save a great deal of time later. Each help section might also explain how search information is organized once it is found so you can search more effectively. Note that many search engines display results differently, so you need to understand how search results are being presented to you.

To make the best use of your time, be sure to have a clear idea of what you are looking for, before you start searching. Unless you have the luxury of time, then simply browsing or surfing the Web will not yield useful research results right off the bat.

Generality and specificity

Most search engines allow you to search within a search you've already done. That is, if you've searched for "cars," you can often then search for "antiques" within the results of the first search (instead of searching through the entire web again). Searching within the results of previous searches is often a good way of moving from general categories to much more specific categories.

Remember also that different search engines will yield different results, even if you enter the same search string. Thus if you find you are getting nowhere using a particular search engine, you might want to try a different engine instead of trying to come up with a different search string.

Practice: Developing search strings

Choose a search string you think would be effective for finding information based on each of these topics. Remember: don't always just search for a single word if you can develop a more effective search string.

Global warming and coastal erosion
Fur trapping in North America
Cigarette advertising
Cigarette advertising for underage smokes
Famine in Africa
The occurrence of AIDS
Employment rates since 1980
Eating disorders among men
Environmental toxins and cancer rates


It is a good idea to take a brief look at a variety of web sites that might be useful after you have used one of the Web's search engines, but don't get bogged down by trying to deal with all the information on any one site before at least glancing at a few other sites. Otherwise you might end up devoting a lot of time to a web site that ends up not being the best resource you can find.

Along these lines, remember to record the URLs or web addresses for what appear to be useful sites as you find them during your initial search. That way, you can easily go back to the sites you want to spend more time at as you narrow your search. Most web browsers allow you to bookmark or save sites. That is, the browser records the address and name of the site for you in a bookmark or favorites file. You can even arrange bookmarks in virtual folders. This way, you can collect a series of bookmarks for each research project you do in order to avoid having just one long list of unrelated bookmarks.

While the bookmark or favorites feature on web browsers is useful, if you are using a library computer or a computer that you won't have access to again, saving bookmarks will do you no good since they can only be recalled by the web browser on the computer on which they were saved. For example, if you go to the library and bookmark a couple of sites and then go back to the dorm to use your own computer, the browser on your computer (even if it's the same as the browser on the library computer, and even if you've logged in using the same user name and password) will not know what bookmarks you saved on any other machine. Libraries generally ask users not to bookmark sites, since if every user bookmarked a couple of sites every time they used the computer, there would hundreds and hundreds of saved bookmarks.

Bookmarks are useful on a computer to which you'll have regular access-ideally, the computer you use for writing. If you are using library computers, remember to write down the addresses of web sites you want to revisit. Don't always count on being able to repeat a search to come up with the same results.