Ever play a hidden object game? The premise is simple: You’re shown a picture crowded with objects and you’re asked to find certain items that are hidden in plain sight. Some objects are obvious while others are camouflaged. A giant clown, for instance, in a picture of a library will stand out, but a pencil placed along the edges of a wooden bookshelf can be hard to find.
The Internet is like a huge hidden object game. Punching in a keyword in a search box can yield millions of documents, but it can be tricky to find the information you need. Following are tips to help you home in on the answers you need.
Narrow the field:
If you search for “autism” on Google, you’ll get almost 4 million hits. At the top of the page and along the right-hand side, you’ll find sponsored links to businesses or organizations who have paid to have their sites come out on top. But if you click on the “news” link, you’ll get a list of recent articles on the subject from reputable publications.
You can also narrow the field by browsing through subject directories. Commercial directories, such as Yahoo and Google organize topics by category. Libraries also compile subject directories. AcademicInfo.net and Librarians' Index to the Internet are excellent subject directories.
These directories allow you to drill down to find the information you need. They’re also a way to learn about the field by seeing how the topic is broken down. You’ll also learn new terms that you can apply to a straight search engine search. So looking for autism on Google Directory allows you to narrow the field by following this path: Health > Mental Health > Disorders > Neurodevelopmental > Autism Spectrum, which is further broken down into yet 19 more categories.
- Use unique words.
- Put the most important words first.
- Use multiple terms when possible.
Example: If you are interested in the link between autism and vaccines, type in both of those terms.
Use quotes around phrases so the search engine will search for the words as a phrase, not as separate words. Example: "international monetary fund." A plus sign before a word in a phrase ensures that all pages returned will include that term. Example: +assisted suicide. A minus sign before a word in a phrase ensures that all pages returned will exclude that term. Example: -cold fusion.
Some search engines offer advanced features such as phrase searching, limiting, and Boolean searching in pull-down boxes. Google Advanced Search, for example allows you to limit by domain, date and where the term occurs on the page. Google’s Advanced Search Operators allow you to further play with the results.
Judging your results:
Anybody can publish on the web so you will need to look hard at the documents you find to determine whether they are reliable. Start with the site’s top level domain, which is the last part of an Internet domain name or the letters that follow the final dot.
.gov domain names are limited to U.S. government agencies—primarily federal.
.mil domain names are limited to the U.S. military.
.edu domain names are limited to educational institutions.
.com domain names indicate a commercial entity and are open to anyone.
.org domain names are often used by non-profit agencies but they are open to anyone.
If you’re looking for statistics about a certain disease, for example, it’s likely that the U.S. Center for Disease Control, will have more reliable data than a pharmaceutical company site or an organization that advocates on behalf of sufferers of the disease.
Also, search for a hidden agenda. A search for information on genetically modified food might bring up the web site of an industry trade group and an article by a member of an environmental organization. Both can provide valuable information but both already have an agenda. For a more objective view, you might want to consult Google Scholar for academic articles on the subject and Google News for mainstream publications.
And check government sites. They are treasure troves of data. There are a number of reliable tools and guides to help you find the information you need from the proper federal agency. A good place to start is the Library of Congress Government Resources Page, which lists official federal government web sites, as well as links to international information, and information on the European Union Information. More information can be found at:
University of Michigan Documents Center
U.S. Federal Government Agencies Directory
GovSpot - Federal, State and Local Government Resources
FirstGov: Your First Click to the U.S. Government
Catalog of United States Government
You can also limit your Google searches to government information by searching Google/unclesam. SearchMil searches over one-million military pages.
The U.S. government is also a great source for information on foreign countries:
The CIA World Factbook provides current information on foreign countries including GDP, major religions and ethnicities and climate.
U.S. Department of State—Background Notes is another good source.
Every year your tax dollars fund numerous studies, reports and surveys conducted by government agencies. Most of the material is open to the public and available on the web.
A good place to start is FedStats, which provides easy access to a range of statistics produced by the 100 government agencies. The Statistical Abstract of the U.S. provides census data.
Per Contra: The International Journal of the Arts, Literature and Ideas
Advanced Internet Research by Rachel Sawyer