Using Search Engines

"I'm astounded at the the number of windows search engines open up to finding new material on the Web"

- ESL Teacher

[Back to Course]

Purpose of Lesson:
  • You should understand what search engines are, identify different types of searching tools, and be able to use them effectively to find the best information possible.

I. What is a Search Engine?

"I've used to search the Internet. Isn't that enough?"

Well, if you keep in mind that there are over 5 billion documents that make up the World Wide Web, no one single tool will help you find what you are looking for in your life time. The Internet is so deep, and most people are using the Internet as if they were digging a giant hole with a toothpick. By learning about different searching tools, people can quickly and effectively search the Internet, and find the most reliable, credible, and timely information out there.

Search engines (e.g.,, are databases of documents, sound files, graphics, etc., that allow you to find references to topics you are interested in by submitting keywords. Search directories (e.g., usually allow users to find information through lists of categories. Meta-search engines ( are not databases; rather, they search the databases of the most popular search engines and then send a list of results of each back to you.

There are also a number of specialized search tools for finding detailed information like biographies, quotations, facts and figures, and images, word definitions. Rather than using general search engines that can a little of everything, these search tools are often created by experts in their fields, and the information can be more credible, providing reference to original sources.

II. How do you Use Search Engines?

Different search engines rank and categorize sites differently. Some have people (human editors) who evaluate each site; others use computer robots or "spiders" to do this job. Because there millions of pages record in search engine databases, some of the results may not be exactly related to what you are looking for and may be used out of context.

Here are several steps you might follow when researching a topic. For this example, you want to find out which university Michael Jordan attended.

1. Think of key words related to your topic

What words could you use in this search? Of course, you could use the phrase, "Michael Jordan," but you could look up other related words like basketball, university, college, etc.

2. Select your search tool

Different search engines have different features. There are also some specialized searching tools. The more you learn and experiment with them, the better you will become in finding the information you are looking for. Here are only a few of the more popular ones:

Search Engines (databases compiled by computer):

  • AltaVista: Good translation services for search results, but lacks detailed categories like Yahoo.
  • Google: Ranks sites based on how many other sites link to it, but it doesn't identify which sources are more authoritative and accurate.
  • Ask Jeeves: Doesn't require special knowledge of keywords.

Search Directories (database compiled by human editors)
  • Yahoo!: Lists information by categories and topics
Meta-Search Engines (complies results from other search engines): :
  • Dogpile- Pro: Fast and comprehensive; Con: Provides too many search results.
  • Ixquick: Identifies sites that appear in the top ten rankings of other search engines. You can also search for mp3 audio files and pictures.
  • Vivisimo: Organizes your results into topic clusters so you can refine your search
  • ZapMeta: A cool tool that shows the results in terms of relevance (related to your search keywords), popularity (determined by the number of Websites that links to yours), and title (alphabetical order). It will also help you identify the creator of the site and will link you to past versions of the site.
Special Searching Tools:

Dictionaries -

General Reference -

  • -
    • Look up biographies of over 25,000 people
  • Britannica -
    • An online encyclopedia with links to suggested websites
  • Columbia Encyclopedia -
    • A well-organized and detailed online encyclopedia
  • [NEW] Wikipedia -
    • A free online encyclopedia in many languages that even allows you to edit the material. Probably not as accurate since anyone can make changes to it, but people can also discuss the article.
  • [NEW] MSN Encarta -
    • A online encyclopedia that even provides the source of its information. Great for starting research.
  • elibrary -
    • A database of articles from magazines and newspapers (commercial service)
  • Information Please -
    • An extensive collection of reference databases
  • Multnomah County Library (Homework Center) -
    • A nice collection of websites on many subjects

    Facts and Figures -

  • The World Factbook -
    • Detailed information on countries around the world

    Quotations -

  • Bartlett's Familiar Quotations -
    • Over 11,000 quotations with information on the original source
  • The Quotations Page -
  • -
  • The Phrase Finder -
    • Useful for coming up with titles for papers

    English Grammar Usage -

  • The American Heritage Book of English Usage -

    Graphics -

  • Google Image Search -
    • Picture database useful for finding images on a particular subject
  • 3. Use Boolean logic terms to narrow search

    Most database indexing and searching are based on the principals of Boolean logic, named after the British mathematician George Boole. The three basic terms used are: AND, NOT, and OR. If you understand how to use these terms effectively when searching, you will have better results. Here is basically how they work:

    What you are Looking for
    Keywords you Would Use
    You want to find information about culture. Results can contain any of these words.
    culture customs
    culture OR customs
    You want to research the relationship between diet and health. Results must contain all of these words. Results will include references with only "diet" or only "health."
    Diet and Health
    diet AND health
    diet +health
    You want information on cars, but you don't want anything on trucks. Results will include only information on only cars, but not trucks.
    Cars and Trucks
    cars NOT trucks
    cars -trucks

    If you are looking for a particular phrase, names of people, or titles of songs or books, enclose them in quotation marks like "Silent Night" in this example.

    III. Practice Activities

    Here are several activities to get you started.

    1. Classroom Treasure Hunt:

    Try to find the answer to this question by using one of the search engines. When you find authoritative information, write down: (1) the name of the site, (2) the URL, (3) the answer to the question.

    • You are planning a trip to Park City, Utah, and you want to know more about the history of the area. In what year did John J. Daly form the Daily Mining Company?
    • When was Abraham Lincoln born and in which state?

    2. Click HERE to visit other selected links for your site evaluations.

    Practice Quiz Questions

    Vocabulary words from this Unit

    • Boolean logic terms
    • meta-search engines
    • search directories
    • key words
    • human editors
    • spiders and robots
    • database
    • search engines



    • Albee, J. (1997). Needle in a CyberStack - The InfoFinder [Online]. (November 18, 1998).
    • Coohen, L. (1998). Boolean Searching on the Internet, University of Albany Library [Online]. (November 19, 1998).
    • Sullivan, D. (1998). Search Engines Facts and Fun [Online].
    • Sullivan, D. (1998). Kids Search Engines [Online]. (November 18, 1998).

    Copyright 1998-2005 by Randall S. Davis, All rights reserved.