Internet Searching - Focusing Techniques

Looking for information on the Internet can become frustrating when your searches return tens or hundreds of thousands of results, and few of them have anything to do with your topic.

Several search engines support advanced focusing techniques that will allow you to get fewer, more relevant results. In this workshop, you will learn about combining search terms, searching multiple word endings, and phrase searching.

Combining Search Terms

Single Word Searching

Try a search for the word cats in Alta Vista's search box. Note how many "hits" your search returned, and then click on the BACK button of your browser.

Now do a search for the word dog and note how many "hits" you get.


Searching with OR

Say you wanted to find information on cats as well as dogs. Instead of searching first for one, then the other, you could combine your search to do both at once. To do this, use the word OR between your terms.

Try the search for cats OR dogs, and note how many hits you get:

Now you have even more things to search through! Using the OR caused the search engine to return any page mentioning EITHER cats OR dogs. A diagram of the results of this search might look like this:

Cats or Dogs

Using OR is most practical when you have two words for the same thing, or two ways of spelling the same word:

taliban OR taleban

taro OR kalo OR "Colocasia esculenta"


Searching with AND

You can LIMIT your search to pages mentioning BOTH cats AND dogs by using AND between the terms. Try a search now for cats AND dogs and note how many results you get.

That's better! A lot fewer to look through. A diagram of the results of this search might look like this:

Cats and Dogs

You can even combine more than two search terms this way. Try a search for cats AND dogs AND birds

Are there fewer hits? A diagram of this search might look like this:

Cats and Dogs and Birds

NOTE that many search engines use an "implied AND", meaning that if you just enter a string of words, it will automatically search as if you have used AND between each of the words.

ALSO, you can substitute the plus sign + for the word AND in many search engines, including AltaVista, though you must put the plus sign before every term:

+cats +dogs +birds


Limiting by Searching with NOT

You can exclude terms from your results as well. If you wanted information ONLY on cats NOT dogs, you could search for cats -dogs. Try it now:

A diagram of this search might look like this:

Cats not Dogs

You could limit this even further by excluding birds as well. Try a search for cats -dogs -birds

A diagram of this search might look like this:

cats not dogs not birds

NOTE In AltaVista, you must use "AND NOT", or simply the - to exclude words

cats -dogs -birds


Combining AND, OR and NOT

These searches can be combined in a number of ways to give you greater control over the results. Try +cats +birds -dogs

A diagram of this search might look like this:

cats and birds not dogs

Multiple Word Endings

In some search engines you can enter in the beginning of a word along with a special character to indicate that you want all the possible ending to that word. For example, in AltaVista you can use the asterisk * to "truncate" a word. Entering nobl* will bring back results for noble, nobleman, noblemen, nobler, and so forth. Try it in the middle of a word, too. wom*n will search for woman and women.

Try a few truncated words in AltaVista now:

prof* or stamp*


Phrase Searching

Search Exact Phrases with Quotation Marks

When a search engine looks for keywords like you entered above, it doesn't pay attention to where in the pages the words appear. This can lead to the retrieval of a high number of irrelevant hits. Searching for exact phrases will greatly increase your chances of finding relevant materials.

Try the following search without quotation marks, and then with quotations. Take note of how many hits you get with each: they laugh that win


Putting It All Together

You can combine all of these search techniques to get most control over your search. Try the following search:+"cigarette smok*" +cancer -lung