computer search, web search

Make Search Engines Work for You: Tips for Better Searches

October 27, 2011
by Haley A. Lovett
No search engine is perfect, but armed with a few tips for better searching you can get great results out of (almost) any search engine.

Tip 1: Use the Right Search Engine or Database

Search engines are not one-size-fits-all, and often finding the best result means starting in the right place. Don’t limit yourself to using Google, Yahoo and Bing; especially for academic research these common search engines might not be the best solution.

Choosing a search engine specific to your needs means you won’t have to sift through pages of irrelevant results or inadequate sources during your search. Spending a little time finding the right search engine in the beginning could save you hours of searching later.

Take a look at the Choosing a Search Engine Web Guide to discover search engines that specialize in delivering academic and trustworthy results, or try the findingDulcinea search engine SweetSearch for a student-safe search environment.

The American Library Association’s wiki Tool Kit for the Expert Web Searcher lists Web search resources by topic area—news, blog, multimedia, etc.—this will be helpful if you or your students are looking for a particular type of online resource during your research.

Tip 2: Choose Your Search Terms Wisely

A search engine is not human, and cannot read your mind. All it has to work with are the words that you enter into it, so choosing those words wisely is important. suggests having your students start by making a list of words that must, might or mustn’t be in the search results—this can help you narrow down what search terms to use during your search.

If your search results still aren’t exactly what you want, try the Tips for Better Searches PDF—you can print it out and leave it by the computer for reference. This PDF will show you how to get fewer results using specific search terms, or get more results using general search terms. It also provides tips for improving search terms.

For more advanced students of search, understanding Boolean logic can greatly improve search results. You’ve probably seen Boolean logic in use even if you don’t recognize the term. It refers to AND, OR and other connecting words that help a search engine understand what you want. Visit Internet Tutorials’ Boolean Searching on the Internet resource for a quick introduction to using Boolean logic in searches.

Tip 3: Ask for Help From the Search Engine

Tip 2 covered some ways that you can improve your searches on any search engine, but each engine has special tips and tricks of its own. Take a look at the help page of the search engine you are using to get advice about that particular engine.

Using Google? There are many advanced features that can help you get quick answers to a question. For example typing “define:yourword” will get you a list of definitions of your word.

Tip 4: Learn How Search Engines Work, and Make Them Work for You

Although the technology behind each search engine varies slightly, there are some basic things you can learn about how search engines work that can help you improve your search skills.

Our Guide to How Search Engines Work explains basic search technology, and also explains how some online companies manipulate search engines to favor their Web sites in the results. Reading more about search engine technology can help you and your students avoid unsavory search results.  

Tip 5: Search Result #1 Isn’t Always the Best

This is an important tip to keep in mind while searching. Most search engines are not making a recommendation that you use the first search result. The reason a result appears in the top spot after a search simply means that it is the best match to what you typed, not that it necessarily has the information you are looking for or is a credible or trustworthy site.

Explore many of the search results you are shown and decide for yourself what is the best resource to use. This might mean clicking through to the third, tenth or even twentieth page of search results (or modifying your search term and trying again). The search engine is only a helper, you are the researcher.

Tip 6: If at First You Don’t Succeed, Search and Search Again

If you aren’t finding the results that you want, you have some options: search again using different search terms, try using search tips recommended by the search engine you are using, or even move on to a new search engine or database and start from the beginning. The information you seek is most likely somewhere online, so finding it will take creativity, and flexibility in your approach to research.

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