Seven Stupid Searching Mistakes, Concluded

It's easy to make mistakes using search engines. Continuing with yesterday's four common blunders, this rounds out the seven stupid searching mistakes made by even the most experienced searchers.

* Committing Capital Offenses

Yet another problem for the searcher is whether to use capital letters in a query. Some engines are case sensitive, while others are not. As a rule of thumb, it's a good idea to always use lower case letters when you search. This will typically return results that contain both upper and lower case letters.

If you use uppercase letters in a query to a case sensitive engine, results will only include documents that also use upper case letters. This is usually a good thing for proper nouns like names or places, which use initial upper case letters anyway. But it might cause you to miss other documents where case-sensitivity is less important.

To see which search engines are case sensitive, and how results differ with different combinations of upper and lower case letters, spend some time with Greg Notess' excellent Search Engine Features chart, which includes a section on case sensitivity.

* Close, But No Cigar

Most search engines do a good job at matching simple phrases, like "Afghan refugees," or "space shuttle missions." You run into problems, though, with a phrase like this section's title. Searching for "close but no cigar" on one major engine (which shall remain mercifully unnamed) provided this link as its number two pick: The Common Cold: Relief But No Cure. Definitely no cigar!

The distance between one word and another in a document is referred to as proximity. Some search engines will give a positive result if your query words appear anywhere on a page, whether or not they are near each other, or are used together in a phrase.

If you're searching for something where your keywords must be near each other to get good results, your only option is to use AltaVista's advanced search and the NEAR operator in your query. This finds documents containing both specified words or phrases within 10 words of each other.

And now for the number one most common searching mistake:

* Searching for Hits in all the Wrong Places

If you're determined to find what you're looking for on the Web, be sure you're using the right tools for the job. Search engines vary widely in scope, function, and quality. You'll waste a lot of time if you don't choose the best search engine for each specific searching task.

Should you use a crawler-based search engine, or a human compiled web directory? How about a specialized search site, a database, or an invisible web resource? By analyzing your needs and comparing them with the strengths and weaknesses of each search service *before* you search, you'll likely get better results.

This may sound like a chicken and egg problem -- how do you know which search tools is best without trying them out first? Experience helps. There's also a terrific table created by Debbie Abilock that's a virtual cheat sheet for a wide variety of information needs -- see the link below.

If you're relatively new to searching and get stuck, don't be hard on yourself. One of the most ridiculous misconceptions I've ever heard is that "you can find anything on the Internet." This is about as true as saying that there are diamonds in every coal mine.

And though it may sound like heresy coming from someone who lives and breathes web search, sometimes your best bet for finding information is to log off and take a trip to your local library. Libraries have tons of resources that aren't available on the Web. And librarians are trained experts who are usually more than willing to help you find what you're looking for. When you're getting nowhere on the Web, take advantage of these (usually very nice) "human search engines."

* Begone, Mistakes!

As you gain experience searching the Web, avoiding these seven searching mistakes will become second nature. Whenever you get weird or unexpected results, take a close look at your query and try to figure out what happened. You'll likely discover yet another mistake to avoid.

Search Engine Features: Case Sensitivity
This table by search guru Greg Notess summarizes the various degrees of case sensitivity employed by the major search engines.

Choose the Best Search Engine˜debbie/library/research/adviceengine.html
This excellent table helps you select the best search tool to satisfy your information need, by posing potential questions and recommending specific resources that are the best matches.

If you missed part one of this article:

Seven Stupid Searching Mistakes, Part 1
In the lighthearted spirit of the popular books for "idiots" and "dummies," here's a look at seven common blunders that are virtually guaranteed to deliver useless, nonsensical, or completely worthless search results.

Search Headlines

NOTE: Article links often change. In case of a bad link, use the publication's search facility, which most have, and search for the headline.

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