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  ABC's of Searching the Web             
(Click on the number of the sentence for which you want more info.)   




1. Use the simplest possible key word or letters.

2. Be really specific.

3. Try several different ways of saying it.

4. Try what are called "boolean" search commands.

5. Evaluate web sites carefully!

6. Avoid Wikipedia for anything but initial ideas.

7. Take (or print out) good notes. 

8. Does your instructor want both "primary" and "secondary" sources?


  More Details              


1. Use the simplest possible key word or letters: for example, instead of typing "arguments," use the letters


You'll then find anything that says "argument," "arguing," or "argues."

        This works with singular vs. plural, too.  For example, type "horse" instead of "horses."  If a plural just has an "s" added to the singular, then start with the singular word: it will find both singular and plural versions. 

        Another way of doing this is to use an asterisk (*).  For example, you could type


and all instances of this set of four letters will be called up.

2. Be really specific.  For example, instead of typing


try first typing

death penalty sometimes good sometimes bad

If that doesn't help you enough--or if you want to be more thorough--then try other combinations, too.  Generally, it's better to work with several specific phrases first.  Then, if you don't get enough good results, you can delete some of your words and try more  more general phrases.

3. Try several different ways of saying it.  One small word that is different may help you find exactly what you need.  The real key in good web searches is figuring out the best key words.  Look words up, if you need to, for their meanings.  Ask friends.  Ask your search engine for

4. Try what are called "boolean" search commands.  For example, if you put quotations around a phrase, like

"dappled horse"

Then your search engine will first (or only) find instances of that exact combination of two words in that exact order.  Otherwise, if you just simply type

dappled horse

then you'll get a million extra references to everything "dappled" and everything "horse."


Another way to make sure two or three words all appear in the search results is to use a capitalized "AND."  For example, if you want every search result to include the three words "dappled," "horse," and "wild,--in any order--then you would type

dappled AND horse AND wild


If you want to exclude certain subjects at the same time, then you can also use a capitalized "NOT."  For example, you could type

"dappled horse" NOT history


dappled AND horse AND wild NOT history


There are more boolean commands.  For a simplified list, see  Washburn, or see a 5-min. audio w/slides at Auckland.

5. Evaluate web sites carefully!  Don't fall for every .edu, .org, and pretty web interface.  Many .edu and .org web sites are written by individuals with wildly varying viewpoints, not their institutions' views or research orientation.  And some of the handsomest web designs have no worthwhile content for research purposes.  Learn how to tell the difference between instructor-approved and -disapproved web sites in videos at Maryland (audio & text, 5 min.), Portland (8 min.), W. Virginia (slides & audio, 4 min.); or in texts at Minnesota, Hacker & Fister, or UC Berkeley.

A good general, introductory set of written tutorials about web research, along with a slide show, is at Purdue.

6. Avoid Wikipedia for anything but initial ideas.  The great majority of instructors do NOT want you to use it as a resource for your paper.  Sometimes it's wonderful, but sometimes it's useless.  (Instructors usually feel the same way about famous quotations, dictionary definitions, and scripture.)  Why?  See OGH's Problem #7.

7. Take (or print out) good notesUse quotation marks (" ") to mark whatever copy from the web site's own words.  And mark your sentences in which you write down--in your own words--an idea from the web site, as you MUST give credit even for ideas!  To not give credit using quotation marks or an author's name for the author's ideas is known universally in colleges and universities as "plagiarism."  You want to completely avoid it.  Why?  See OGH's Problem #3 or Chapter 16.

Above all, to make your own life a lot easier, COPY THE WEB ADDRESS!  If you do use the site as an official resource for your paper, you'll want to find it again easily so that you can create a complete bibliography entry. 

Or you simply could print the whole web page you will use, or copy and paste it to a word document, so you don't have to choose which words to quote just yet.  When you print it, the web site address usually appears at the bottom. 

For more on note taking, see Toronto.

8. Does your instructor want both "primary" and "secondary" sources?  It may help you to know ahead of time--you may need to search for both kinds.

A "primary" source is from someone who actually experienced an event (like a written interview or a news video of something actually happening).  A "secondary" source is from someone discussing what has happened without directly experiencing it (for example, most textbooks; and most opinion journalism in editorial columns, or TV or radio segments devoted to personal opinion). 

For more on primary vs. secondary sources, see Toronto or videos at California-San Diego (3 min.) or Hartness (5 min.).



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Editor: Richard Jewell, Inver Hills College, Minnesota State Colleges and Universities (MnSCU)   
Originally published by the Univ. of Minnesota English Department's Composition Program Web Site
First date of publication: January 1, 2001.  Most recent update of this page: 2 Aug. 2012


To contact the author, go to Contact Richard Jewell.  
Requests, reports of broken links, and suggestions are welcome.


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