September 18, 2017

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Start Your Search Engines, Part 1: Taming Google

Part One: Taming Google—and other tips to master Web searches

Sure, there are a lot of nifty tools on the Web, all those social applications, and the like. Still most of us go online for one thing—to perform a basic search. Say you can’t recall the name of the actor that played opposite Nicolas Cage in the movie about a bomb on that island prison (Sean Connery of The Rock. Thank you, Google). Or you must know the number of eyelids on a camel (three—the third shields those doelike peepers against sand). For most fact-finding missions, the Web’s there for us. But—as media specialists well know—the sheer wealth of online information can hamper efforts to focus on a few reliable references. Daunting enough for adults, how can we help our students find the right answers?

There’s Google, for starters. The search giant answers all our questions—and then some. To tame Google results and create the most effective search, it pays to know some handy tips. To begin, educators should use the SafeSearch preference in Google, which will exclude explicit sexual content from your search results. It’s not fail safe, but it’s a start.

As with most search engines, Google doesn’t care about capitalization or those short, inconsequential words like “of,” “and,” or “the.” So don’t enter those words in the search box unless they’re part of a specific phrase, in which case, put it in quotes. Incidentally, this is a great way to check your students’ work for plagiarism. Let’s say a fourth grader’s report contains the following sentence: “Like salt used as a preservative, high concentrations of dissolved minerals in the wet, early-Mars environment known from discoveries by NASA’s Opportunity rover may have thwarted any microbes from developing or surviving.” Enter the whole thing in quotes on Google and find exactly where he lifted those words (www.nasa.gov/mission_pages/mer/news/mer-20080215.html). This is also an effective method for debunking those email hoaxes we all seem to receive. Encase a phrase from the email in quotes and the search engine will fetch hundreds of sites that explain once and for all that no, you won’t get cancer from antiperspirant and Microsoft is not giving away money for every email forwarded.

This is where most users stop, but Google offers so much more. Use the advanced search to find files of a specific type, such as PDF or PPT. Need help with math? Type any equation into a Google search box for the answer. Google even knows the order of operations. Want to convert two miles into meters? Enter “2 miles into meters.” It’s 3,218.688, by the way. Looking for that FedEx package? Enter the tracking code into a Google search window and you’re led to the FedEx site with your package front and center. Key in “define:” preceding a word and Google will attempt to give you a definition. Traveling overseas? Type “U.S. dollar in Euros.”

Google even lets you search from your cell phone. Send a text message to 46645 (Google without the E) with your search criteria and you’ll get a return text with the results. You can also use mobile search to check the weather (weather 76543), find a local pizza place (pizza san diego) or learn what time your favorite movie is playing at the local cinema (movies 00920).

Google Scholar (scholar.google.com) will help limit your search to academic literature including books, abstracts, content from specialized publishers, and university collections. Google Scholar has a whole page devoted to librarians and support for connecting their libraries’ holdings to Google Scholar (scholar.google.com/intl/en/scholar/libraries.html). Once connected to Scholar, patrons have access to library resources as well as Google sources via the familiar Google interface. Many scholarly articles require a subscription to view the full text, but the abstracts are accessible through the search. We haven’t found any K–12 schools linked to Scholar. However, we think it would be a great resource for Advanced Placement students and International Baccalaureate schools. (Email us if you are connected to Google Scholar and garner a mention in part two of this article in next month’s SLJ.) Another service is Google Book Search (books.google.com), which allows you to peruse full text, and Google News Archive (news.google.com/archivesearch), for access to historical news sources.

This barely scrapes the surface of Google’s potential. But there are plenty of alternative tools, many of which might be preferable to educators since they can help narrow down students’ search results to relevant filtered sources with proven educational value.

How would you like a live person to help with your search? That’s available on ChaCha.com. Free registration is required for this service, but it’s worth the effort, particularly for younger kids. Students begin by entering their search criteria and then request a guide. Within moments, a chat window opens up with a real person on the other end, waiting to help. Let’s start with a favorite topic: chocolate. A Google search yielded 199 million results. Among the top 10 hits were sites relevant to the food’s history. After a wait of just a few seconds longer, our ChaCha guide hit paydirt, providing a single link “All About Chocolate: The History of Chocolate” (www.fieldmuseum.org/Chocolate/history.html) that fulfilled our needs. Having live help identifying appropriate links is a boon to students just learning how to research. And with the free account on ChaCha, your search history is saved for future reference.

Answers.com is no typical search engine either. It draws on a collection of resources to provide answers, rather than simply links to other Web sites. On Answers.com, our chocolate search retrieved a single page of countless facts about the confection—not a link—and references were included. Answers also features an educator section (educator.answers.com) with strategies for using its site with students. The absence of flashing banners and other ads makes this area especially inviting for classroom use.

A lesser known, but powerful search engine is Clusty (clusty.com). With a minimalist approach akin to Google, Clusty’s spare start page consists of little more than a search box. What makes Clusty unique is the way it clusters or groups results. The chocolate query yielded 89,734,469 hits, but a sidebar listed related subheadings, including the “history of chocolate.” Selecting this cluster narrowed our search down to 16 sites.

Similar to Clusty, Quintura for Kids (kids.quintura.com) also groups search results. But instead of providing sidebar links, Quintura enables students to mouse over a subtopic to reveal more links. Users may also deselect topics to remove them from their search criteria. This site is another that helps students determine appropriate keywords, which can ultimately lead to better searches on mainstream search engines.

In comparison, on both Ask.com and its sister site Ask for Kids (askkids.com), users launch a search by entering a complete question (“What is the history of chocolate?”), while Google is primarily for keyword queries. Ask for Kids allows students to enter entire questions as well as just keywords to find their answers. The results take you out of this site, unlike Answers.com’s initial searches, but results on Ask for Kids are relevant to the search questions and even prompt for clarification before linking out to Web pages. Ask.com presents more links than Ask for Kids and provides images and dictionary and encyclopedia entries all on the same page.

Other search engines peruse only a specific, hand-indexed list of sites. These tools can assure that the results will be curriculum based or at least not wholly inappropriate—something you can’t guarantee with all search tools. One example is netTrekker (nettrekker.com), a paid subscription site. Here, kids can search in grade-appropriate sections (elementary, middle, and high school), by general topic, with the capacity for drilling down to a specific subject area. Each resulting site is evaluated on authority/credibility and content depth and is tagged with the type of content provided there (games, lesson plans, assessments, and such). Searches can be saved and shared. There are numerous resource links that connect users to a wealth of online references, maps, clip art, and homework help. In addition to copyright-friendly images, netTrekker provides an easy way to search for famous people and offers time lines on history, art, and music. Our search for chocolate in the elementary section yielded a reasonable 25 sites with links to history, books, and the effects of caffeine.

We also give a nod to Yahoo! Kids (kids.yahoo.com). Although we don’t like the distracting ads, games, videos, and other activities, the search function works really well. Our search “chocolate” received just over 2,600 hits, sectioned by results from Yahoo! Kids, the Yahoo! Kids directory, and the Web. The Web hits in this case were more fruitful, with links to chocolate history. We also liked the tag cloud, with links to other references, as well as the “Ask Earl” feature, where students can pose related questions. The questions are not answered instantly, but the ones having responses—for example, What makes white chocolate white?—make interesting reading.

There’s so much more to cover on searching—how to locate images, search for people, and work with maps and custom search engines—we’ll address these issues and more next month in part two of our feature. As Joan Baez once said, “As long as one keeps searching, the answers come.” The trick is finding the right search tool for a given purpose, while also accommodating individual users’ style and taste. As with paper resources, it’s important for educators to expose our students to what’s out there and learn ourselves how to use the right tool for the job.


Both educators with Killeen Independent School District in central Texas, Anna Adam and Helen Mowers are the creators of the podcast series Tech Chick Tips (techchicktips.net).

Where to Shop for a Search Tool

Choose the Best Search for Your Information Need

www.noodletools.com/debbie/literacies/information/5locate/adviceengine.html

An accessible resource for student use, this page by teacher-librarian Debbie Abilock matches the search tool to the task, whether you’re refining your topic, looking for specific results (i.e. primary sources, tagged content), or seeking media online.

Search Engine Showdown

searchengineshowdown.com/reviews

Here you’ll find formal reviews of the major search engines, with information on news searching and Web subject directories. Created by Greg Notess, a reference librarian at Montana State University.

Recommended Search Engines

www.lib.berkeley.edu/TeachingLib/Guides/Internet/SearchEngines.html

A highlight of this UC Berkeley tutorial is a table comparing features of the “Big Three”: Google, Yahoo! Search, and Ask.com. With additional guidance on subject directories and metasearch tools.

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