Tips for Effective Web Searching

The Web is a wonderful storehouse of information, but finding what you need can be a challenge. Below is a short list of tips designed as a guide to effective searching on the Web. Lori Ricigliano, May 2000.

Focus on Nouns

Your search topic may include verbs, modifiers, and prepositions. Almost without exception, these words are disregarded by search engines or considered too variable to be useful. The main keywords are nouns.

Provide Enough Keywords

One of the biggest mistakes you can make in searching the Web is not using enough keywords. How many is enough? It depends on your topic, but keep the number to no more than six or eight.

Be Specific

It's difficult to identify the right level of specificity for a topic. If the keywords are too broad, then too many results are returned. If they are too narrow, then two few results are returned. Synonyms can provide the right level and ensure proper coverage. Use the Boolean OR to string synonyms together.


  • female OR women
  • teenagers OR adolescents

Note: Check to make sure you are not using redundant terms.

peregrine falcon, bird

Phrases Target Results

Phrases are a powerful search technique. They require that all terms appear in the exact order shown. Enclose phrases in double quotations " ".


  • Names "Bill Gates"
  • Organizations "United Nations"
  • Natural Phrases "campaign finance reform"

Note: When using proper nouns, bear in mind that most search engines recognize upper versus lower case letters.

Use AND to Glue Your Search Terms Together

The Boolean AND focuses a search by retrieving only those records that contain at least one term or phrase from each concept.


  • children AND school AND violence
  • "endangered species" AND "spotted owl"

Note: Some search engines require that AND be capitalized, while others do not. The capitalized form will work for all engines.
Limit AND to three or fewer.


Truncation is a technique for retrieving variations in one search term. It works best when the root word is long, when plurals require more than an "s" and, when the root word is not common to other words. Use the * asterisk to indicate truncation.


  • femini* matches feminine, feminist, feminism, etc.
  • child* retrieves child and children

Some search engines, like Northern Light, Excite, and the Go Network, have automatic truncation. 

Specify the Order You Want

Put keywords in order of priority. Search engines rank documents by relevance, with first query terms to be evaluated with a higher ranking.


  • privacy AND Internet AND (regulation* OR laws)

Whenever you mix Boolean operators in a query, you should always use parentheses ( ) to force the order you want.


  • garden AND (snails or slugs)

Without the parentheses, this query would be interpreted as


  • (garden and snails) or slugs, retrieving pages with garden and snails and also all pages containing slugs, regardless of whether they contain garden

Know Your Limits

Most search engines provide options for limiting a search by date, url, language, title, and media. These techniques are easy ways to narrow a search which retrieves too many records. Some limits can be designated by using a pull down menu or text box. Others use a prefix followed by the term to be searched.


  • title:"affirmative action" finds pages with the phrase affirmative action in the page title (which appears in the title bar of most browsers).
  • url:tutorial finds pages with the word tutorial in the URL.

If at first you don't succeed, try another search engine.

Lots of search engines claim to index the entire web, but no one search engine covers everything. It's a good idea to search several for comprehensive coverage as your results will vary. Try a meta search engine (DogPile, The which searches several individual search engines at once or a specialized search engine (Search Engine Watch or SearchEngineGuide.Com).

Caveat: Meta search engines may retrieve fewer search results in the search engines they visit.