How Research Can Help You Get the Most Out of Your Search Engine Results

We all know the Internet is a great source of information for just about anything we want to find. Need to fix a clogged drain? The Web will tell you how. Looking for the best deals on a new shrub? The Internet will show you best pricing.

There are, however, big differences between using a search engine, and researching something and kids and adults alike struggle with the differences.

What is an internet search engine and how does it find information?

Search engines are software programs designed to search for publicly available information and return the results you’re looking for in an organized way in fractions of a second. Common search engines include Bing, Yahoo! AOL, Google, Ask, ChaCha and ixquick.

Search engines provide a text box where you enter the word or phrase you want to search on. That information is sent to the search engine, which has access to a huge index of information that has been tagged with keywords. The results you receive depend on how closely the word or phrases you entered match the keywords identifying the indexed results.

Search engines have tools that crawl the web following links in much the same way you surf the web. These crawling tools index the information they find —including the keywords used, any links to and from other pages, and metadata about the page.

Search engines then use this information, combined with information they have learned about you and your location to calculate what they think will be the best search results for your query. For example, if you always go to ABC pizza, then that is the result you may want to see first. And you only want to see the ABC pizza near you - seeing search results from another city or state really isn’t helpful.

The Difference between Search and Research

There is a huge difference between entering words or phrases in a search engine and actually researching something. Search results are great for finding a movie, checking the weather forecast, seeing the price of an item, and so on. What search isn’t good at is finding the answers to more complicated questions or looking at multiple aspects of an issue. This is where research becomes important.

Start with an understanding that the results at the top of your search page are paid for by someone who wants you to see their information first. Companies know that you are highly unlikely to look past the first page or two of results – and you may not look past the first 2 or three results.

But how did the first three ’un-paid-for’ results get chosen? Why those three out of all the 17 million options? The answer is that these results have also paid to get this placement - but instead of paying the search engine for advertising space, they paid a search engine optimization company to get their website to best meet the search engine’s criteria for picking sites. Search engine optimizers know that search engines rank the value of web pages using a complex formula that includes how many of the search terms appear, the number of links to and from the site there are , traffic to the site, etc., so they work to make their client’s sites rank higher in the search results.

This doesn’t mean that a website near the top isn’t a great site; it just means as with all search results, you need to look at a few more factors to make sure the site is offering good information. There are four steps to a quality research process:

  1. Quality search results depend on quality search terms. Start by being as specific as you can with the keywords you enter into the search engine. You may have to try a few combinations to understand how your search terms affect the results.

  2. Use several search tools. Use more than one search engine and use different types of search tools like:

    • Searches that specifically index the full text of books

    • Indexes of research papers and academic articles - search programs in libraries can often search content in expert-reviewed research documents that free search engines can’t crawl.

    • Indexes of quotes

    • Images indexes to find pictures that can illustrate a homework assignment or topic

  3. Build a list of possible sources. Look at your search results and select only those sites that are reputable. Always look for the author’s expertise. You want qualified, expert material that has been reviewed by other experts - not just something someone wrote.

  4. Now you are ready to start your research. The three previous steps are needed to get you to the place where you have identified quality sources that you can now use to research your topic.

How do you know if the sites you find provide reliable, truthful and up-to-date material?

To know if a website is going to provide you with the best possible content look at a few key points:

  1. Is the website hosted by the government, or university with expertise in the area? You should be able to quickly see who is behind a legitimate, authoritative website. Check the extension. Is it a .com? Is it .org? Or is it .gov or .edu? It is nearly impossible for non-government and non-educational entities to gain access to these domains. If the website address ends in .com or .org, the information is more likely, but not necessarily, to be sales related.

  2. Does the website site cite other experts and link to other sources?

    • Are the conclusions based on facts or opinions?

    • Is the information well organized and free of grammar or spelling errors?

    • Can the information be verified on other websites with proven sources?

  3. Is the site superficial or does it dive into more detail?

  4. What is the purpose of the site? Is it trying to sell you, or convince you of, something? These sites may have just as accurate of information as other sites, but it is important to keep in mind that when a site’s motive is to sell you something, everything is likely to be skewed to one point of view.

  5. Look for dates when the content was posted. While it might not matter that the information you access is old when you are researching WWII, it will matter if you are seeking the latest news on a current topic or treatment.

Using a search engine you can find answers to just about any question you can think of - but it is important to dig a little deeper on some topics to find the right answers!

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