Editorial services by Laura E. Goodin

On Beyond Wikipedia
by Laura E. Goodin (©2009)

"So many sites," wept the student as he clutched his head and rocked from side to side. "So many! And yet — not one that I really want!"

How can you make your Internet searching more efficient? How can you hone in on exactly what you want and need from the world beyond the computer screen? Two strategies can help you get the sites you're looking for — and filter out the sites you don't:
  • Keywords
  • Stepping stones

A keyword is the word that captures the essence of what you want to find out. It's that idea that distinguishes your topic from everything else on the Internet. Sound overwhelming? Don't worry: you don't have to pick the perfect keyword right off. You can use keywords to narrow down, or refine, your search.

Suppose I want to find out about dogs. Not tractors, not cooking, not camping. Dogs. I could go to my favorite search engine and enter the one word that distinguishes what I want: dogs. I will get more sites than I could ever look at in a hundred lifetimes, because the keyword "dog" is so broad. But I can use more keywords to narrow it down. I happen to know the breed of dog I want: Airedales. Not only that, but I know that I want to research the history of the breed. So I go to the search engine, and I enter dogs Airedale history breed. Those four ideas put together mean I will get only those sites that have all four keywords, all four concepts. That narrows it down a lot!

Here's another example: I want to research the role of class consciousness in the Rum Rebellion. The following are the actual results I got from google.com (everything in the Keywords column is exactly as I entered it, including any inverted commas).

Keywords Number of Hits (Results)
"rum rebellion" class 21,100
Well, that didn't narrow it down much!
"rum rebellion" "class consciousness" 21
Wow, limiting my search to sites that contained the exact phrase "class consciousness" really did narrow it down! Perhaps too much. I'll try a different way to express what I want.
"rum rebellion" "class conflict" 40
That's a little better. I can look at these sites and see if any of them have the sort of information I want.

Now, a word about those inverted commas (also known as quotation marks, if you speak American English!). They tell the search engine to only return sites that have the words inside the inverted commas in that exact phrase. Not just "rum", not just "rebellion", but the exact phrase "rum rebellion". If I had run that last search without the inverted commas, as just rum rebellion class conflict, I would have gotten over 5,000 hits. And there is no guarantee that they would actually be about the Rum Rebellion — they could just be about a class of students who staged a rebellion because they didn't have any rum!

It often takes a little bit of creative thinking to come up with the keywords you need. Don't be afraid to try keywords, phrases, and combinations that seem too specific or even a bit weird. If you get too many hits from a keyword or phrase, keep adding other keywords to your search to narrow it down. If you don't get enough, remove keywords or use ones that are more general.

Stepping stones
With this strategy, you use a site that is almost what you want to help you find the sites you do want.

Your instructor probably told you that you are forbidden to use Wikipedia as a source. So you should be. (See my article Reliable Sources, Wannabes, and Imposters to find out why.) But that doesn't mean Wikipedia is useless to you. Each Wikipedia article has a number of features that can make it a stepping stone:
  • The text of the article will probably contain the commonly accepted expressions and terms for the topic you're interested in. You can get a sense of what these terms are, and use them as keywords to narrow your search.

  • There are usually links to other Wikipedia pages that might be closer to what you want than the one you first found.

  • Best of all, there are almost always links at the bottom of the page. These can include the footnotes to the main article, lists of reference documents, and links to external sites. These often include an "official" site or a site that has source documents.

For example, in the "Notes" section of the Wikipedia page on the Rum Rebellion, I found a link to a description of the first political cartoon published in Australia. Now that I knew it existed, I could use cartoon and "rum rebellion" to search images and find a scan of the cartoon itself. It might be useful for what I want to explore in my paper, it might not — but now I have another resource at my disposal!

Other stepping stones you can find on a site might be:
  • the Links and FAQ pages

  • a mention of people or publications that may have other, more detailed sites about them

  • the names and biographies of the people who edit or manage the site

  • footnotes or sources listed on the site

  • links to mailing lists and Facebook pages (beware — these are not scholarly sources, although they may put you in touch with experts or enthusiasts in your field)

Searching the Internet is more art than science, it's true. Don't be afraid to invest a few minutes chasing down leads, following trails, and generally thinking like a detective. It's almost as useful to discover what you can rule out as actually to find what you need.

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