Step Zero: What to Do Before Searching

In ancient times, searching for information meant dressing up, hitching up the horse, riding to the nearest library and thumbing through drawers of cards carefully typed by generations of librarians. The sheer effort to get to that point meant that you had plenty of time to think carefully about what you were looking for.

And now, when you can call up Yahoo in your bathrobe at a moment's notice, the time for thoughtfulness has been greatly shortened. While the search for information may seem to go much faster than before, it will flow even faster if you slow down for a minute and remind yourself of what you're looking for. The simple advice below will take a short time to follow and will save you time in the long run.

There are only two steps:

1. Think About Your Topic

What is the question you're trying to answer? Think about the

  • people
  • terms
  • organizations
  • places
  • objects, etc.

that might be mentioned in any web page that might contain the answer to your question.

Jot these down on scrap paper as they occur to you.


2. Create a 3M List of Search Terms

Now, start a second list. By thinking about your topic in terms of words that Must, Might, or Must Not appear in the pages you're after, you'll be preparing well to deal with a search engine.

In the MUST column, write any terms that would surely appear on a web page that's relevant. You want to be sure that every page that the search engine points you to includes these words.

In the MIGHT column, put words that are synonyms for relevant terms, any of which might appear on a page of interest to you.

In the MUSTN'T column, put words that would exclude pages that use some of the same words you're after, but which you aren't interested in.


For example...

Suppose that you're putting together a WebQuest in which students will look at the idea of "revolution" as portrayed in different countries. Their task is to examine a number of postage stamps issued by countries celebrating a successful revolution, to find common themes and images, and to draw some general conclusions about how history gets written by the victors. So... you need to round up some appropriate pictures and descriptions of stamps.

Accordingly, you generate a list of terms that are relevant to the topic and then put them into the 3M columns.

You decide that any appropriate page would have the words stamp, revolution, and commemorative on it, and that other relevant words would be postage, postal, and first day cover. You aren't interested in coins depicting revolution, nor in rubber stamps, nor in the Beatles song Revolution #9, so you put those in the MUSTN'T column.

Which leads to the actual search...

With your 3M list in front of you, it's an easy matter to start your search. As you'll see when you read Seven Steps to Better Searching, you put a + in front of the MUST terms, a - in front of the MUSTN'T terms, and nothing in front of the others.

As you continue to search, you might want to take some of the MIGHTs and make them MUSTs in order to narrow the pool. Or you might want to add to the list of MUSTN'Ts as you find words associated with sites that are off target for your needs.

The key to good searching is to start well, and then to adjust your terms as you see what's out there and clarify your goals.

The mechanics of using AltaVista efficiently are described in Seven Steps to Better Searching, and you might want to check there next.

Written by Bernie Dodge. Last updated July 8, 1999