Student Guide Home

Anatomy of a page

Evaluating for relevance
Authority of a Web page
Evaluating for accuracy

Page types:

Informational pages
News sources
Advocacy web pages
Personal home pages

Web search strategies:

Getting started
Web directories
Search engines 1
Search engines 2
Citing online sources


The Search Process

[ImageMap of Search Process]

A Web Search Process: One way to research a topic on the Web. The tools you employ may vary. This diagram is an image map; to hear more about a particular step in the process, click on the appropriate box or word in the diagram.

Now that you have some practice evaluating Web pages, we will consider some Web search strategies. The course that your Web research takes has largely to do with the development of your argument, and your research needs at the current stage of your project.

Although I have tried to reduce the research process to a basic procedure here, it is important to improvise with it a bit. Get to know the tools outlined on the pages that follow and come up with your own variants of the suggested process to suit your particular project and preferences.

The research-writing process itself is highly personal and recursive, but there are some activities which are fairly consistent in every project. Authors start by doing very general research just to define the topic and formulate a sensible question about it. Having found a general topic, an author might feel confident enough to propose a tentative thesis and return to the stacks to explore the topic in more detail. Then, as the research evolves, the author may return to the library several more times to follow up leads that emerge in the work itself.

The chart above shows the different components of the search process and their relationships. Each decision block (question mark box) makes a fork in the path, and each action (exclamation mark) box is a new step in the process:

1. Do you have a topic?

At this point "topic" can be interpreted loosely. You just need a general, sketchy, idea to get started. But before you begin your research, you may want to sit down and write for a half hour about what you know about the topic so far, and especially about what you think you may need to know. Alternatively, you might use the half hour to make a list of ideas and questions you have about your general topic. Think of all the different ways you might approach a discussion of the topic.

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1a. Check lists of suggested topics

If you do not have a topic, there are a few sites that can help you select one. At this stage you might also browse encyclopedias and other reference books for ideas (though it is not a good idea to cite reference books heavily in a serious research project). For more information, see Rose Adams' guide, "Beginning Research on Any Topic;" and the section, "How to Find and Develop a Viable Research Topic," in Michael Engle's "Library Research at Cornell: A Hypertext Guide."

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2. Are you looking for general information or specific details?

In other words, are you browsing for all kinds of information about your topic ("carry laws"), or are you trying to find some specific information (e.g., which states currently let people carry guns)? If you are looking for general information, have a topic which may be too broad, or know that the topic contains keywords that would be too common on the Web (like "Web usage statistics"), you can begin by searching the Web directories, sites which catalog Web pages by subject. If you know exactly what you are looking for, and can come up with precise search words, conduct keyword searches with search engines.

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2a. Browse Web directories

Web directories store and present links to Web sites under subject and topic categories. Because of the subjectivity involved in categorization, Web directories have to be assembled by people; where search engines, which make only weak subject classifications at best, compile their databases with Web crawling software. For this reason, Web directories are advantageous for certain tasks. For instance, if you have only a subject ("taxes," "animal rights") that you would like to narrow to a specific topic , you can just follow the subject links in the directory down to the editors' topic and sub-topic menus for inspiration.

Web directories can also help you read "around" a narrow topic. If you are not hunting for specific facts, but are looking for a range of related ideas, a Web directory can point you to sites representing all of the issues surrounding the topic.

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2b. Narrow the topic

Narrow your topic down to something that can be thoroughly researched in the time allowed and can receive detailed attention within the assigned length of the paper. For example, you might narrow a topic from "Medieval memory theory" to "Chaucer's use of the Medieval 'arts of memory' in The House of Fame." Or, from "Drug Abuse in Sports" to "the ethics of mandatory drug testing for high school athletes."

You should be able to express your topic as a kind of discussion question, one that starts with the word "why." For example, "Why does Chaucer make use of the images and backgrounds of the Medieval art of memory in Book I of The House of Fame?" Or, "Why is mandatory drug testing for high school athletes wrong?" If you have trouble narrowing the topic, or cannot express your topic as a "why"-question, you may need to do a little more research or exploratory writing.

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3. Create a list of keywords

Before using the search engines, you should create a list of keywords and phrases that will produce the longest list of relevant pages from the search engines.

After you have produced a list of phrases, enter these words into a few selected search engines. As you see the results of your searches, add new terms to your list.

Keywords have to be chosen carefully. A search with just the word "ghost" might produce a list of thousands of pages that would include sites devoted to ghost folklore; class syllabi on horror fiction; ghost notes; Casper, the friendly ghost; details about Bill Bruford's CD, "If Summer Had its Ghosts;" ghost writers, etc. It is important to choose keywords carefully to keep irrelevant results at bay.

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4. Keyword search

Special commercial sites on the Web employ "search engine" software to give users the ability to keyword search large databases of links to Web sites. These databases are useful for generating long lists of results quickly. Search engines generally produce a lower percentage of useful results than the subject guides; but because search engines catalog larger percentages of the Web, they are bound to produce links to more relevant pages than a simple Web directory search.

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The End

Ha! Did you really think this was the end? Though we tend of think of research as something we finish before we start writing, writing and research are actually parallel activities: one always grows from questions raised in the other. As you research, write exploratory drafts, or keep a journal to record ideas about what you find in your research. Occasionally you will find that there are questions you will discover that will have to be accounted for or points you raise that will need further substantiation. This will send you back to the stacks, or back to the computer, to repeat some of the steps we have discussed above.

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Version 1.1
© 1997 Craig Branham
Saint Louis University
Created: 09-Sept-97
Last Modified: 06-Oct-97

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