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  • Rationale: Welcome to “ Conducting Online Research.” This presentation is designed to introduce strategies for conducting research online using search engines and evaluating results. The 25 slide presented here are designed to aid the facilitator in an interactive presentation of the elements of online research. This presentation may be supplemented with the following OWL resources: - Searching the World Wide Web - Evaluating Sources of Information Directions: Each slide is activated by a single mouse click, unless otherwise noted in bold at the bottom of each notes page Writer and Designer: Caitlan Spronk With thanks to Dana, from whom I got the ideas for the activities. Revising Author: Name, date Developed with resources courtesy of the Purdue University Writing Lab © Copyright Purdue University, 2000, 2006, 2008, 2009
  • Conducting effective online research requires several skills and areas of knowledge. Knowing which tools are available, how they work, and how to use them will aid you in your online research. This presentation explains several web search tools, how search engine results work, and how to use search terms most effectively. The presentation also offers strategies for what to do with online search results once have them—how to evaluate sources to determine whether they are appropriate for a given project.
  • Online research can be incredibly helpful and convenient. It can bring you large amounts of information in a very short amount of time, and can often be done from the comfort of a personal computer. However, large amounts of information can be frustrating to sift through. Additionally, though doing online research online can result in finding large amounts of content, it is important to recognize that the Internet does not contain all of the information in the world, and online search tools, like search engines, do not search even all of the content on the internet. A wise online researcher realizes that there is potentially helpful information that is not available through search engines. Knowing the potential pitfalls of online research will also help online researchers to develop strategies to avoid these pitfalls and work with the limitations of online research.
  • A number of differences exist between information published on the Internet and information published using traditional print methods. Although there are exceptions to these observations, in general these guidelines hold true of web and print sources.
  • Continuation of web versus print.
  • The visible web and the invisible web are two concepts that explain why search engines can’t find all potentially useful information online. The visible web is the web that is freely and often conveniently accessible. Anyone with access to a web browser and a search engine can find the content that is a part of the free web because there are no barriers to access. It is the part of the web that you can “see.” The invisible web is the part of the Internet that is less readily available, for a number of reasons. There are many sites that search engines do not retrieve results from. Many academic journals and databases are available online, but their content is not listed in search engine results because these resources require paid access. Another reason might be that a site’s owner has included code that tells search engine software not to list the site in search engine results. Or content on a given site might simply not be easy for a search engine to find because of bad or unusual coding.
  • This works if students have been introduced to academic databases. If your library doesn’t have access to research databases, Questions to consider: What are the top three results for each search? How many results did each search return? What are the differences between the results? (What are the individual articles/pages for? Who wrote them? How much information is there? What is the tone of the information? Do you trust the information?)
  • Three of the most common online search tools are search engines, web directories, and metasearch engines. Of these, search engines are the most well-known. A search engine, such as Google, consists of software that crawls the Internet, storing information about websites based on keywords and other information. A user enters a keyword or search phrase into the search engine interface, and the search engine retrieves relevant results based on the entered keywords. Web directories are compilations of sites listed by topical categories. They can help a user move from a general area of interest to a more specific topic, and, eventually, website. For example, a user of the Open Directory Project at dmoz.org could click on “Recreation,” then “food,” and then “cheese,” which would lead the user to a page that listed websites about cheese. A metasearch engine is a search engine that searches multiple other search engines. When a user types a keyword into a metasearch engine, the engine lists results from many different search engines.
  • Search engines do not necessarily list the “best” result first. In fact, they couldn’t, because different people are looking for different types of things when they enter keywords into search engines. Which pages search engines list, and the order in which they are listed, is based on a number of factors, including the amount of information on the site, the number of other sites that link to it, the number of people who select that link when searching, the length of time that the site has been listed in the search engine database, and the code of the site.
  • Because each search engine is coded differently, and told to follow different “rules” for retrieving and listing, different search engines might return different results in a different order. This is why it’s often a good idea to try a search in multiple search engines—you might find something using one search engine that another one missed. Some search engines also include results that are paid advertising, so it’s wise to look at the results carefully to determine which results are normal and which are paid results.
  • Note: this can backfire if only the instructor does it as an example, because sometimes all of the top results in each search engine are the same. However, if a whole class does it, there should be quite a few topics that will lead to different result order in each search engine. This activity could be modified in a number of ways—e.g. discuss with the class instead of a partner, etc. Questions to consider: Are the results different? How are they different? What are the characteristics of the pages listed first by each search engine?
  • When conducting a search online, it pays to be creative. Before you start, you might consider brainstorming about words and phrases that could be associated with your project. You might also consider making a list of different kinds of information that might be helpful to your project—for example, you might need information about the number of dining halls in the United States, as well as nutritional information about the food served in dining halls. These two angles would probably need at least two different searches. Because you will most likely find a large volume of information, it’s a good idea to keep notes or bookmarks of sites that seem particularly helpful. When going through pages and pages of results, it’s easy to forget which pages were the most helpful.
  • There are several strategies for using search terms that will help you find the most useful sources for a project. One highly helpful strategy is to do multiple searches using different terms, and different combinations of terms. Think about it this way: some writers might use the term “dining hall” when writing about the quality of on-campus food, while other writers might have used the term “campus food service.” If you only did a search using the term “dining hall,” you’d miss all the content that only used the term “campus food service.” As you look through your results, you might come across terms used by writers that would help you in your search. Be alert for terms that might help you find new results. If you get too many results in a search, it might be helpful to make your search terms more specific. For example, if you’re writing about the quality of dining halls in Indiana, you might want to use “Midwest university dining hall” instead of just “dining hall.” “Midwest university dining hall” is more likely to return content about university dining halls, while just “dining hall” is more likely to include results about elementary dining halls all over the world, which are irrelevant to your project.
  • Boolean operators are useful for tailoring search terms to get the type of results you want. Boolean operators are one-word connectors that are placed between keywords or keyphrases in a search. Using AND will find pages that include all of the search terms used. For example, “dining hall” AND “student workers” will return pages that include the phrases “dining hall” and “student workers” OR will find pages that include pages that include at least one of the search terms. For example, “dining hall” OR “cafeteria” OR “campus food service.” OR is useful for expanding search results if there aren’t enough using just one term, and for when there are multiple terms that might be used to describe a subject. NOT excludes pages that include the second phrase listed. For example, Henry VII NOT Shakespeare would be useful if you wanted to find content about Henry VIII the historical king, but not the Shakespeare play by the same name. NOT is useful for limiting results when there are too many. Most search engines have more advanced search options in addition to Boolean operators, so keep your eyes option for “advanced” search options in the search engines you use.
  • Putting quotations marks around multiple word phrases can be helpful if you want to find an exact phrase. It can also be helpful in weeding out unrelated content. For example, entering dining hall without quotation marks might return a page with the phrase, “as I was dining, I heard a noise coming from the hall, ” while entering “dining hall” in quotation marks will only return pages in which the words “dining” and “hall” appear next to each other. Quotation marks can help limit the results of a search.
  • Questions to consider: Were the results significantly different? If so, how? Which terms/combinations retrieved the most results? The least? Did certain terms/combinations seem to retrieve more helpful results?
  • Even if you have used search terms wisely and effectively, there will inevitably be results that are not appropriate for your project. Strategies for evaluating the content you find will help you determine which content is helpful and which isn’t.
  • Knowing what type of content you’re looking for will help you decide which results are helpful. Evaluating online content is not a simple matter of deciding what content is “credible” and which is “not credible,” although credibility is an important consideration. You might be writing a paper that analyzes different viewpoints on an issue, in which case a source that might be “not credible” for another purpose because it is too opinionated might be perfectly acceptable here. On the other hand, a highly opinionated piece might not be the right thing for a different project, or even for a different part of the same project. Know what you’re looking for—these are just some examples of the types of content you might need.
  • There is no formula for deciding whether a site is “credible” or not, although answering a set of questions may help you to better understand whether a given site is what you’re looking for. But be wary: a site that has an author, is updated often, that looks professional, and is sponsored by an organization could still be full of information that’s not helpful for your project. Use common sense and don’t rely on static credibility measures. Some questions you should consider when evaluating the usefulness of a site: -What is the purpose of the site? (Is it a blog? A product site? The web-page of a non-profit organization?) -Who is responsible for the site? (Who wrote it? What is the sponsoring organization? Is it the work of an individual, a corporation, or an organization, etc.?) -When was it last updated? -Do other sources corroborate the information on the site? Do the other sources you’ve found seem to agree with the site in question?
  • But how do you figure out who is responsible for a web site, or what its purpose is? Sometimes figuring these things out can be tricky, because websites can be misleading about their purpose. Take several moments to carefully look over a site. Don’t take what any site says at face value. Some strategies: -Pay attention to the tone and the kind of language used. Is it informal? Is it exaggerated or sensational? (Is it written like a tabloid cover?) Does the language appeal to the emotions? -What kind of assumptions does the page make? Does the page make generalizations that oversimplify the matter? Does the page clearly explain where its information came from? -Does the site seem to be selling something? (Note that there is a difference between sites that have outside advertising on them, and sites whose purpose is to promote a product.) -Is the site trying to convince users to adopt a certain opinion? (Does the site seem one-sided? Does it acknowledge other perspectives?) -Look for a copyright notice (usually found at the bottom of the page), note who the copyright belongs to, and do a quick search about that individual/organization. This can help you determine who is responsible for the page. -What other sites does the site in question link to? Which, if any, other sources does the site reference? Do these links and sources seem to be trustworthy?
  • Domain name extensions used to be a fairly reliable strategy for determining the credibility of a website. This is no longer the case. Anyone can register .com, .net, .org domain names, meaning that a .org extension does not mean that the site belongs to a legitimate organization, or that the information presented is guaranteed to be valid. While it’s true that .edu and .gov can only be used by educational institutions and governmental institutions, this doesn’t mean that information found at a .gov or .edu is reliable: for example, many universities offer students and faculty web space, and users may post information that is not correct
  • Don’t rely on the way a website looks to determine whether it’s a good source of information. Although a bad design might be more likely to indicate an individual with a personal website, free well-designed templates are becoming increasingly common and accessible. Organizations with biases that might not be helpful to a project can also simply pay a web designer to make a site look professional.
  • Wikipedia articles often come up as one of the first results in a search engine for many topics. Instructors differ about whether Wikipedia is a valid source that can be cited, so make sure you know your instructors’ policies. Although Wikipedia may not be fully accepted as a citable source in academic projects, it can still be a useful online research tool. It can be helpful for getting a general overview of a topic that can then guide later research. It can also be help generate ideas and angles on a topic that you might not have been aware of. Many Wikipedia articles also contain extensive sources and external links at the end of the article. Even if you cannot cite a Wikipedia article, the bibliography and external links at the end of an article might lead you to a source that might be helpful to your project and considered acceptable for academic projects.


  • 1. Conducting Online Research Effective Online Research Strategies
  • 2. Overview • For effective online research: – know available search tools – understand how tools work – know how to use tools – evaluate results found with tools
  • 3. Online Research • Characteristics of the Internet: – large volumes of information – convenient – doesn’t contain all information – potentially frustrating
  • 4. Web versus Print: Web • Web – anyone with web access can publish – author/affiliations and qualifications may be unclear – may not clearly identify external information – may be biased/misleading – publication info may not be listed
  • 5. Web versus Print: Print • Print – extensive publication process – clearly indicates author/affiliations – clearly marks outside sources/quotations – bias exists, but is reviewed – only qualified manuscripts accepted for publication – publication info clearly listed
  • 6. Visible Web versus Invisible Web • Visible Web: content can be found using freely accessible search engines such as Google • Invisible Web: content not found by general search engines
  • 7. Invisible Web vs. Visible Web: Practice 1. Write a topic on a piece of paper 2. Exchange it with a partner 3. Run one search in a general search engine such as Google 4. Run another search using a library research tool, such as JSTOR, EBSCOHOST, or Megasearch 5. Discuss the kinds of results each search turned up
  • 8. Web Search Tools • Search Engines – list results based on entered keywords • Web Directories – offer categories for users to choose from • Metasearch Engines – combine results from multiple search engines
  • 9. Search Engine Results • Based on: – site’s amount of information – number of linking sites – number of people who choose a link – length of time in search engine database – code of the site
  • 10. Search Engine Results • Different search engines might return different results in a different order • Can include results from paying advertisers:
  • 11. Search Engine Results: Practice 1. Write a search topic on a piece of paper 2. Exchange the piece of paper with a partner 3. Enter the search term into three different search engines. 4. Discuss the difference in results with your partner
  • 12. Conducting a Search • Consider: – keywords that apply – what kinds of information you need – multiple angles – keep notes
  • 13. Using Search Terms • Do multiple searches • Try keyword variations – e.g. try “dining hall,” “cafeteria,” and “campus food service” • Be specific as you learn more – e.g. change “dining hall” to “Midwest university dining hall” • Boolean Operators: words added to a search to make it more specific
  • 14. Defining a Search: Boolean Operators • AND – finds pages with all of the search terms used – e.g. “dining hall” AND “student workers” • OR – finds pages with at least one of the search terms – e.g. “dining hall” OR “cafeteria” OR “campus food service” • NOT – excludes pages that include the second term e.g. Henry VII NOT Shakespeare
  • 15. Defining a Search: Quotation Marks • Return pages with exact matches – enter dining hall • Get: “As I was dining, I heard a noise coming from the hall” – enter “dining hall” • Get: “Dining hall food quality is assessed in this paper.”
  • 16. Search Terms: Practice 1. Write a general search term on a piece of paper 2. Exchange it with a partner 3. Using the same search engine for the whole activity, run searches using: 1. the original term 2. synonyms of the term 3. Boolean operators 4. Discuss with your partner how the results of each search were different
  • 17. Evaluating Search Results • Some results won’t be helpful – wrong topic – not enough information – incorrect or outdated information – shallow or untrustworthy source – wrong tone for your project (e.g. an opinionated article when you need a basic overview)
  • 18. Evaluating Search Results • Have a clear idea of type of content needed – general overview – different viewpoints in a debate – in-depth explorations of a topic with numbers and statistics
  • 19. Evaluating Search Results • No precise formula • Find out: – purpose – who is responsible – when last updated – whether information is corroborated in other places
  • 20. Some Clues to Determine a Site’s Purpose • Tone and language used • Assumptions/Generalizations • Commercial/Non-commercial • Advocating a particular opinion • Copyright notice • Links/Sources cited
  • 21. Evaluating Search Results • Domain name extensions – anyone can register .com, .net, .org domain names – not a great way to tell whether a source is “credible” – .edu and .gov can only be used by educational institutions and governmental institutions • still not necessarily reliable
  • 22. Evaluating Search Results: Visuals • Good design NOT an indicator of reliable information • Bad design not an indicator of unreliable information – might be more likely to indicate an outdated website or one run by an individual
  • 23. Wikipedia Articles • Often one of the first results listed • “Web versus Print” slides apply • Check for instructors’ policies • Can be useful for: – getting an overview – generating new ideas – pointing to other sources
  • 24. Evaluating Sources: Using Wikipedia • Example of sources and further reading in the Wikipedia Henry VIII article:
  • 25. Resources for Online Research • OWL Resource: Searching the World Wide Web • OWL Resource: Evaluating Sources of Information • OWL Resource: Copyright determine which content you are allowed to use • http://www.vts.intute.ac.uk/detective/ (The Internet Detective—site with activities for developing critical online research and evaluation skills)
  • 26. For More Information • Contact the Purdue Writing Lab: – Drop In: Heavilon 226 – Call: 765-494-3723 – Email: owl@owl.english.purdue.edu – On the web: http://owl.english.purdue.edu
  • 27. The End