Finding Information on the Web

By Frank D’Ascenzo

If you’ve ever searched for information on the Web, you’ve most likely been overwhelmed by the massive amount of data presented for your review. Searching for information on the Web requires a different mind-set, a 21st century approach, as it were, and an understanding of the rules used by search engines.

One Big Mess: A recent survey of the Web found about 2-billion pages of information on-line, with the number increasing at the rate of 7-million pages per day. However it’s measured, the Web is a huge repository of facts, pages and documents, which seem virtually useless to many people. Useless because most of us like to see information neatly organized and controlled. We’re accustomed to researching information in a library using the tried and true Dewey Decimal System. Look it up in the card index and be directed to the books containing the information you need. Not so on the Web. There, it seems, all information is stuffed helter-skelter in a huge box. What you need might be there, but finding it can be a challenge. The information is not neatly organized, because there are no rules for organization, and because there are no “librarians” to sort and organize it for us. This is brought home when you look for something using one of the search engines.

For example, go to the AltaVista search engine site, enter the word “automobile” in the search box, and you are presented with 655,240 pages of information that the search engine believes might correspond to your search word! Do the same on Google and it will find 1,810,000 pages! Where to start? On which of those pages is the information you need? And how in the world can you ever begin to sort through all those pages? This is a perfect example of having too much information. There must be something wrong with this Internet system. There is too much useless stuff on line.

It’s Not My Fault: Well, maybe. Or maybe there is nothing wrong with the Web, but rather with us. After all, just what constitutes too much information, or useless information? Information that seems useless to me might be important to you. Actually, the same argument can be made about all the information printed in books. Some of it is marginal, even useless, and some of it is outstanding. So, why should information on the Web be any different? The difference about researching information on the Web is that we have such fast access to so much of it, the sheer volume can be overwhelming.

There you have it! The Web is not at fault–we are! We make presumptions about the Web that are out-dated. We try to apply 20th century rules of how information is arranged to a 21st century technology, and they don’t work. We have a training problem. We grew up on the Dewey Decimal “Search” System, which worked fine with books–in libraries. Now we need to learn new search rules for locating information on the Web.

A Search in Time Enter: George Boole who devised what the math world calls Boolean search operations. Boolean searches are those that include operative words and symbols like “and”, “or”, “not”, “+” and “-” between your search words. For example, if you’re searching for information on the effect of measles on adults, and you enter “measles adults” in the search box, AltaVista will find 1,643,435 related pages; but if you enter “measles+”, AltaVista will return only 16 pages for your review. However, compare that to the Google search site. Here, the search words “measles adult” will return 23,000 pages. Plus, the Google search engine has a very different set of search aids from AltaVista.

The point is that if we want to find information on the Web we must learn how to search for that information. We must be aware of general Web search rules (i.e., Boolean searches), and realize that different search engines may have different rules. Which is not really a problem, because each search engine or index will post its rules generally near the search entry box. Look for underlined words like “help”, “advanced search”, or “search tips”. Click on them and you’ll be presented with all the information you need to make the search engine work best for you

[From Connection Magazine – January 2001]