How to Research Homework on the Internet

Searching the Internet

Locating information among the millions of sites and billions of pages on the web can feel like hunting for the thinnest of needles in the world’s largest haystack. Fortunately, the tips and techniques that follow can help cut that job down to size.

Locating what you’re looking for online can seem a little daunting, but it’s not impossible. In fact, many companies exist primarily to provide search tools to web users. These tools are known as search engines. A search engine scours the web for pages that match the keyword(s) typed into its search box by a user.

The most popular of these search engines, Google, is run by one of the largest companies on the planet. Google maintains an enormous, constantly changing database of web pages and content that is searchable from the company’s website, There are other search engines as well, including Microsoft’s Bing. But Google is by far the most popular and is considered by most search experts to be the most thorough, easy to use, and efficient.

Google It!

The Google search engine has become such a pervasive aspect of modern culture that it has given rise to a new idiom: “Google it.” In the old days, if you had a question, you might have looked in an encyclopedia, dictionary, or other resource or perhaps called the reference desk at your local library for an answer. Today, you just “Google it” by hopping onto the Google site and performing a search.

Using the Google search engine is pretty straightforward— simply type in your keywords and click “Google Search.” For example, let’s say you’re interested in finding information about Medicare supplemental insurance. Simply type the phrase Medicare supplemental insurance into the search box and click “Google Search.” Google will search its database for web pages that contain all the terms you’ve entered and return a list of results, or hits. With so many pages to search, there will probably be thousands of hits. Luckily, Google makes it easy to find the most pertinent information with its patented PageRank technology. PageRank analyzes every page on the web and decides, using a series of metrics and formulas, which pages are most relevant for a given search term. These pages are then listed in order of relevance, with the best matches first.

  • FYI
The basic premise behind PageRank is that good web pages contain links to other good web pages. In fact, Google is so confident you’ll like the way PageRank organizes results that you can click “I’m Feeling Lucky” and get sent directly to the first web page returned for your query. Often, you’ll end up exactly where you wanted to go. 

Use quotation marks. Perhaps one of the most effective ways to find information using search engines like Google is to enclose the phrase you’re searching for in quotation marks. This commands the search engine to search for pages bearing that exact phrase rather than pages that merely contain all of the words. For example, if you find that searching for the phrase medicare supplemental insurance returns too many pages that don’t have the kind of information you want, try putting the term in quotes: “medicare supplemental insurance”. The search engine will only return results that have that specific phrase somewhere on the page.


  • Operator?
An operator—such as the minus sign, quotation marks, site:, or define:—is a symbol that provides a specific instruction to the search engine. 

Use the minus sign. One good way to narrow your search results is to place the minus sign in front of a term that you don’t want to appear in your results. For example, suppose you’re searching for information on Medicare supplemental insurance in the state of Washington. You might search for the phrase medicare supplemental insurance and add the term Washington. Your search would look like this:

“medicare supplemental insurance” Washington
However, you’d likely find that many of the results are actually about Washington, D.C. To stop Google from returning Washington, D.C., results, you could append –“Washington, D.C.” to your previous search terms. Your search would then look like this:
“medicare supplemental insurance” Washington
–“Washington, D.C.”
This will return all the pages that contain the exact phrase medicare supplemental insurance and the term Washington but not the term Washington, D.C.
Search a specific site. Sometimes when you’re on a website, you may want to search only that specific site. Many sites have their own search functions, but frankly, Google is much better. So tell the Google search engine to restrict its search to a specific site by using the site: operator. For example, let’s say you want to see a list of news articles that have been posted on about Barack Obama. You can query the Google search engine like this: “Barack Obama”
Google will then search only CNN’s site for references to Barack Obama.
Find definitions. There’s no need to keep a heavy dictionary next to your computer when you’ve got the Google search engine at your fingertips. Finding the definition of a word takes just seconds when you use the define: operator. Searching define: plethora will return a list of definitions for the word plethora from several dictionaries.
Perform conversions and calculations. Google’s search engine also performs conversions and calculations. Simply type in the formula that you want to calculate, such as 1+1. (Of course, Google can perform much more complex calculations, too.) Perhaps even more handily, Google will also convert measurements, such as inches to centimeters, ounces to pounds, and more. Just type your search in a natural way, as in:
How many ounces in 3.5 lbs
Then press “Google Search.”

Google offers many other advanced search operators, which you will discover as you use the engine more frequently. Of course, Google isn’t the only search game in town: All of the major search engines will provide useful search results. Th e trick is to learn the ins and outs of whatever search engines you choose to use.

Get Specialized

Google, Microsoft Bing, and other major search engines are great for general searches, but there are plenty of other search engines that are more specialized. If you’re interested in searching within books, academic papers, or even maps, you can find search tools to help you.

Books. Several years ago, Google embarked upon an ambitious project: to scan and make searchable every book ever published. Today, the company has millions of books in its database, and you can search through them via Google’s book site,
Academic research. With the advent of the Internet, scholarly research has never been easier. Sites such as Google Scholar, Academic Search Premier, ProQuest, JStor, and First Search all maintain enormous databases of academic and scholarly articles from journals, magazines, and other publications. Access to some of these requires library membership or an academic affiliation.
Maps. Going on a road trip? Sites such as Google Maps, Bing Maps, and MapQuest provide online maps, as well as turn-by-turn driving directions and searchable destinations. You can even use them as yellow pages. Find your house on the map; type pizza, coffee, auto mechanics, or another destination or service in the search box; and the interactive map will not only show you all the nearby locations that match but will also offer reviews of them.
Genealogy. The Internet has revolutionized the way that both professional and amateur genealogists search for information about ancestors. Sites such as offer (for a price) comprehensive searches that turn up everything from naturalization forms to ship manifestos.

Hints for Better Hits

Given the enormous amount of information on the web, it’s a wonder that anybody can find anything. But conducting an efficient web search doesn’t have to be difficult. Here are a few helpful tips:

Keep it simple to start. Master a few simple searches before tackling complex ones.
Be specific. If your initial search produces more results than you can shake a stick at, narrow it by adding more specific keywords and/or using quotation marks or some of the other search operators that were discussed earlier in this chapter.
Check your spelling. Make sure that your query term(s) is spelled correctly. Most search engines will suggest alternative spellings if you’ve made a mistake.
Sort your results. Many search engines, including Google, will let you sort your results by a number of criteria, including date. This can be useful if you’re looking for time-sensitive results, such as recent news items.
Learn search operators. We discussed a few Google search operators, but every search engine has its own. Learning to use them will help you find more specifi c results. Look for “Advanced Search,” “Search Tools,” “Help,” or similar links on the search engine’s home page.
Eliminate unnecessary words. There’s typically no need to include words such as a, an, or the in a query.

At this point, you’re probably either feeling much better about finding information on the web, or you’re ready to stand up and fling this book across the room. If you’re feel•ing overwhelmed, remind yourself that searching the web isn’t a science, but rather an art, and you will get better at it with practice.


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