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Searching the Web Effectively: The Burrito Equation

You can construct a really good search for any search engine, web or library, just as simply as you can construct a math equation (if you don't like math, stick with us, you'll be pleasantly surprised at how easy this is).

When you enter text into a search engine, you're doing a keyword search. The search engine looks for the words throughout the web, and finds webpages where the words appear anywhere on that page. The results list simply tells you that the selected text appears somewhere on the page.

You have probably already noted that search engines such as Google are really excellent at predicting what we want as we are typing it in. This doesn't mean that these skills are not useful. They can help you eliminate irrelevant search results in many different search engines and databases (yes, even Google!), no matter how good the technology is at predicting what you want.

  1. Phrase searching using quotation marks
    When you enter more than one word into a keyword search, search engines simply look for records that contain each of those individual words -- whether or not the words appear next to each other. The search engine is cherry-picking from all the words you entered and finding them alone or in random combinations. If the words you entered are actually a phrase, such as a title, put them in quotation marks. This tells the search engine to look for these exact words in this exact order, together. This can significantly decrease the search results you see, depending on the uniqueness of the phrase overall. For example, a search for sour cream blueberry muffins will result in many blueberry muffin recipes, but some will use heavy cream, some sour cream, and some will be just regular muffin recipes. However when you put the words in quotation marks "sour cream blueberry muffins" you will get search results that show recipes for blueberry muffins that contain sour cream as a main ingredient.
  2. Boolean Operators
    Boolean operators can be used to connect search terms in different ways and lead the search engine closer to finding what you want. There are 3 main boolean operators to choose from: AND, OR, & NOT.
    Using multiple search terms with "AND" tells the search engine to search for these terms in the same resource. You can use this to narrow your search. Maybe you want to look for appetizer recipes that have bacon in them. Using the search: appetizer AND bacon recipe will bring up results that have both terms within somewhere.
    Use "OR" to connect multiple words that are synonyms. This will help you broaden your search in a controlled manner. For instance, you could ask the search engine to search for soup OR stew recipes, and it would search for recipes that had either term attached. So you would get soup recipes and stew recipes in your search results.
    Using "NOT" will exclude terms from your search results. This can help narrow your search, particularly if one of your terms is very broad. For example, you're going to a potluck and have been told to bring salad. You decide to look for salad recipes, but you want to eliminate pasta salad recipes from your search results. By typing in: salad NOT pasta recipes, the search engine would collect all the recipes for salad, but leave out the recipes that also mention pasta.
  3. Truncation
    Truncation allows you to add a symbol to the end of the root of a word to search for multiple forms of that word. Typically, search engines use the asterisk * or the question mark ? to accomplish this task. So if you searched for omelet* the search engine would pull up results for both spellings: omelet and omelette.
  4. Wildcard
    Wildcards are helpful if a word you're looking for has multiple, relevant spellings. By replacing the letter or letters that are different in the words with a pound sign (aka. hashtag) #, the search engine will look around for results containing either of these spellings. You can even use this for spellings that include symbols, for instance, hyphens. There are two great examples of how using wildcards can aid in your search: barbecue/barbeque and doughnut/donut. Both spellings of these words are correct and widely used. If you're looking for good recipes for either you don't want to miss out on any just because you spell it differently. Using barbe#ue or do#nut will pull up search results for both words.
  5. Nesting
    Nesting is all about grouping synonyms together. You use those round brackets we call parentheses ( ) to group together words that mean the same thing, words that may be used to express the same concept, or words that may be used interchangeably within your desired resource. When you use nesting to construct your search, you should be using the boolean operator OR to connect the synonyms within your parentheses. Never use the boolean operator AND to connect words within your "nest." For example, by nesting the terms (mollusk OR mussel OR clam OR scallops OR shellfish) together, we will get search results that include any of those search terms. Nesting, of course, is only really necessary when your search has reached large proportions with several different parts. Similar to math, nesting tells the search engine which terms to group together. You can nest terms within other nested terms. It can look pretty crazy by the time you're finished.
  6. Use the Advanced Search feature
    Many search engines, even those for internet search engines like Google, have the option to choose an advanced search. You might know that you're looking for a book written by a particular author, with a particular word in the title, or written in a particular language. Or maybe you'd like a video rather than a book. The Advanced Search feature can help you narrow your search in any of these (and many other) ways. In many search engines, the Advanced Search is a user-friendly way at helping you construct searches if you do not understand some of these tricks that we just talked about above. At the Hiebert Library, a link to the advanced search feature is available below the library search box.

Applying the Skills...

Now let's take everything we've learned and apply it to something really important: finding the best burrito recipe we possibly can.

Every good search needs to begin by imagining our perfect search result and the words we'd use to describe it. So we'll take a moment to identify what kind of burrito we're craving. Let's say we're vegetarian, so we don't want it to have any meat, maybe we're looking for beans specifically. We are also worried about cutting some calories so we need something low in fat. We're making this burrito for breakfast, so we want those kinds of flavors rather than something too robust that we might eat at dinnertime.

Now what? We need to break down that paragraph in which we've identified what we're looking for into key concepts and words. Then we need to put them together, using the skills we learned above, so that they make sense.

A good first attempt might look something like this: vegetarian low-fat bean breakfast burrito recipe

Not too bad. We'll get some good search results, but we can make it better; more specific. Let's pull in boolean operators and phrase searching (these are often the search strategies people feel most comfortable with utilizing).

Now our search looks something like this: vegetarian AND low-fat AND bean AND "breakfast burrito" recipe

Note that there's not just one right answer. You often hear "bean burrito" or "breakfast burrito" but rarely hear bean breakfast burrito. We could've used either of the first two phrases and used AND to connect the other term. They would've yielded similar and many of the same search results. We can still do way better than this. Now let's think about what synonyms we could add into our search.

This search is getting more specific: vegetarian OR vegan OR meatless AND low-fat OR fat-free AND bean AND "breakfast burrito" recipe

Although that looks great, you can see that we've got a problem. This search is looking a little confusing. We can use nesting to help us group our similar terms together.

Now we've got: (vegetarian OR vegan OR meatless) AND (low-fat OR fat-free) AND bean AND "breakfast burrito" recipe

We can use truncation and wildcards to make our search a little more inclusive of terms. We know that veg* will gather both vegetarian and vegan, as well as vegetable, making truncation a logical choice there. Low-fat and fat-free are both frequently spelled with and without the hyphens, so they're a great moment for using our wildcard.

We're getting close to a great search: (veg* OR meatless) AND (low#fat OR fat#free) AND bean AND "breakfast burrito" recipe

We've got a pretty good search here, but it could get more specific. We can go through this and see if we can identify any place we might be able to narrow down what we're looking for burrito-wise. "Bean" is pretty generic. We may love all beans, but you probably have a specific kind in mind.

Taking this preference into consideration, our new search may look like this: (veg* OR meatless) AND (low#fat OR fat#free) AND "black bean" AND "breakfast burrito" recipe

The last thing we can do before using our awesome search is check through it to see if any terms may give us quirky or problematic search results. For instance, I hadn't considered that the word "free" would not only get me fat-free search results but also nut-free, gluten free, etc. search results. I'll need to put that term into quotation marks to make sure the search engine filters out those others.

Finally we have it. The ultimate string of search terms crafted to find us the most excellent vegetarian, low-fat bean breakfast burrito recipes on the whole internet:

(veg* OR meatless) AND ("low#fat" OR "fat#free") AND ("breakfast burrito" OR "breakfast wrap") AND "black bean*" AND recipe

Other things to note

Every search engine works with a different algorithm. These algorithms have varying levels of success, and specific rules that guide them. What works in one search engine may be slightly different in another. Some search engines will recognize different characters for boolean operators and wildcards. For example, Google will allow you to use the words "AND" and "OR" (all in caps!) but will not recognize "NOT" unless you use a hyphen (-). Finding out which produce the best search results for the search engine you prefer will save you time in the end. Google, for example, has a "Search Help" option under "Settings" in the bottom right hand corner of its main page.

For some fun examples, including more explanation, see the following links: