Digital Literacy 2010: Effective Search Strategies

Of all the topics in our 7th grade Digital Literacy course, Effective Search Strategies is easily the most relevant to daily life; everyone searches the Internet.  In terms of worldwide search queries, these comScore figures from December 2009 are staggering:

  • Google: 88 billion per month
  • Twitter: 19 billion per month
  • Yahoo: 9.4 billion per month
  • Bing: 4.1 billion per month

Searching and effective searching, however, are two very different tasks.  With more than 1 trillion unique URLs (as verified by Google and Magestic12), the enormity of the ever-expanding web is nearly unfathomable.  Consequently, for students today, the skill of locating information has become as important as the skill of memorizing information.  To begin our journey toward proficiency, we explored (1) how search works, (2) how to use a Search Box Strategy, and (3) the basic and advanced features of Google.

How Search Works

Becoming a search expert begins with understanding, at least on a rudimentary level, how search engines work.  Most students (and adults) are generally surprised to learn that when they perform a web search, they are not actually searching the web:

Different search engines work in different ways, but they all utilize the same basic principles of algorithms and keywords.  As WiseGeek noted earlier this month, though, concept-based searches are on the horizon:

The newest trend in search engines, and likely the future of search in general, is to move away from keyword-based searches to concept-based searches. In this new form of search, rather than limiting a search to the keywords the searcher inputs, the search engine tries to figure out what those keywords mean, so that it can suggest pages that may not include the exact word, but nonetheless are topical to the search. This is still a developing field, but so far seems to have a lot of potential in making searches more relevant, making the web an even easier place to find exactly what you’re looking for.

While this trend is promising ( the ~ operator has been used for years to find related terms and Google has a related searches view), keywords are still, for the moment, the key to effective searches.  Employing a Search Box Strategy can greatly improve the efficiency and efficacy of any keyword query.

Search Box Strategy

The 21st Century Information Fluency Project suggests that “using a search strategy is the difference between browsing the Internet and searching the Internet. One systematic approach is called the Search Box Strategy.  When you enter something in the search box, see what you get, and continue the process until you find what you are after. Searchers who have refined the Search Box Strategy will carefully choose keywords, do a preliminary search, scan the results for clues, and persistently revise search terms until they find what they seek.”

Image Source: Information Fluency

The greatest challenge for students in this process is the “revising”  of search terms, particularly when performing a school-related search; they simply lack the content-area/subject matter vocabulary.  Knowing how to use a search engine’s basic and advanced features, however, can compensate greatly.

Google Basic and Advanced Search

Each year I informally survey my students regarding their knowledge of basic and advanced search techniques.  Invariably, less than 10% have any familiarity with options beyond the search box.  Because Google is widely regarded as the most popular general-purpose search engine, we focus our efforts on some of its more useful tools, including the Wonder Wheel and Google Advanced Search.

The Wonder Wheel (which is only visible/available when Google Instant is turned off) is an interactive Flash app which places your keyword in the center of a concept map and related terms around it. Clicking on a related term creates a new, connected circle with more related terms:

In the recently published Teaching the iGeneration, Bill Ferriter explains the Wonder Wheel in detail and shares tips for using it with students.  This reproducible worksheet from the book, courtesy of Solution Tree, is an excellent introductory activity for the classroom.

Despite being the favorite search engine of many students, most are completely unaware of Google’s advanced search features.  Simple techniques such as using quotes to locate an exact phrase or limiting results to a specific domain can filter millions of results down to a handful.  Google’s Search Help provides a quick overview of the advanced options, this extended guide covers Advanced Search in considerable detail, and Nancy Blachman’s excellent Google Guide provides online tutorials for Novices, Experts, and Teens.

Intentional Practice

Although homework and in-class exercises provide students ample “opportunities” to search, much of this type of practice is unguided.  Trial and error can be effective but is inefficient and often frustrating.  Resources such as the 21st Century Information Fluency ProjectInternet Search Challenge Blog, and Boolify provide structured, intentional practice with corrective feedback.  Incorporating these search activities into the curriculum can improve any student’s skills and make navigating the near-endless depths of the Internet a productive, enjoyable experience.

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