Thursday, 21 April 2011

Searching on the Internet


To use the Internet you need a computer of some kind, an internet service provider, a web browser and a search engine. I take it for granted that you have access to a computer, be it a desktop, notebook, netbook, tablet or smart phone, and an internet service provider. This workshop concentrates on the other two essentials, a web browser and a search engine, with particular emphasis on Google, the commonest search engine at present.

A web browser:

Before you can search on the internet you need an internet or web browser provided by a software supplier. The commonest are Microsoft's Internet Explorer, now up to version 9,
Google's Chrome, now up to version 20, and Mozilla's Firefox, now up to version 13.   Which is the most popular depends on which data base is used as Wikipedia's users in June 2012 explains.  There are two other browsers of some importance.  Some of you will have heard of Safari or be using it, as it is the Apple Mac browser, and if you have a smart phone with an integral browser it is probably based on the same technology as Safari. You are probably less likely to have heard of Opera, which can be excellent for use on a smart phone or otherwise as it uses very little of the computer's resources.

Browsers, like most computer tools, have been reviewed on the internet and some links can be found in the addendum at the foot of this blog. For most of us the choice is between Firefox, Google Chrome and Internet Explorer. Each of these has different strengths and characteristics and which you use will be a matter of personal choice. There is no "best" browser as our priorities are different and the qualities of the various browsers change with the versions. 

You can run several browsers on your computer at the same time and there is no reason why you shouldn't do that and decide which you prefer for yourself. If you're an Apple Mac user there is nothing wrong with Safari. If you need a browser on your smart phone - most have their own - or on an old operating system with little memory then Opera is the way to go as it is the only one generally recommended for such use.

Which ever browser you decide upon make sure you keep it up-to-date as older versions are more insecure.

Next requirement - a search engine:

Once we have opened our web browser most of us seem to have our favourite search engine and it’s not unusual for it to be our home page. Google is the best known and most popular of the web searching engines but, like any of the others, it won’t always give you what you want and you need to go elsewhere. However, as Google is the first choice of so many of us I will enlarge on its use before indicating where else you can look and why.


Lets just look at the Google search page and see how you can use it. You immediately see there are words along the top left hand corner of the page. Most of those are self-explanatory even although they are not all related to searching on the web. 

The format of the rest of the page changes from time to time and also depends on the version you have chosen.

Key elememts that will be available at some stage in your use of Google usually include the following:

In the top right hand corner there is a gear wheel Tool icon.  A left click on that shows four options at present.  Search Settings is the most important at the moment as it enables you to make various decisions as to how your searches are to be carried out and where you see the results.

Then in the middle of the page there is the box for entering the detail of your search.  Below the box for entering your search details are the selection boxes for Google Search and I'm Feeling Lucky. You can left click on anything you see on the page to develop it. You will also note the page is available in Maori.

Somewhere on the page, usually after you have started searching there will be options to search Pages from NZ [giving NZ sites priority but not excluding other sites] or The Web, Advanced Search, Search Help and More Search Tools.  You can safely click on any of these links to see what they involve.

Google has its own GoogleGuide called, 'Making Searching Easier". It also provides a Web Search Help page, which gives you the same information, mostly, in a different and perhaps simpler format. That has links to pages such as Basic Search Help. You can explore this material for yourself. Like everything else Google does there is incredible detail and much repetition. Don't be put off by that. Another page which can be very useful is Search Features, which gives leads to very useful tools.  

Various other sites give tips how to best use Google such as this PC World page.

You should be aware that Google, like other search engines, keeps a record of everything you look at unless you have the rather sophisticated know-how necessary to carry out the steps available to prevent that. For more on this you can look at 6 Ways to protect your privacy on Google, from ComputerWorld,  Protect your Privacy from Google and PCWorld's ironic comments.

Google has country specific search sites. You will have noticed our home site is Google NZ. I have sometimes found it very useful to use its Australian, UK or USA counterparts.

In addition Google provides specialist search sites like Google Scholar, and even a Google Alert service, e-mailing you as to new results, the latter still in a beta form.

Some practical hints:

1. To make your search engine of choice your home page first open your search engine. If there is some other tab open close it.

If you are using Internet Explorer as your web server then go to Tools>Internet Options>General>Home Page>Use Current and left click on it. Then go the bottom and left click on OK and it is done. If you want to reverse that just open whatever page it is you want to have as your home page and use the same method.

If you are using Firefox as your web server then depending on the version go to Tools or Options>Options>General>Start Up>Home Page>Use Current Page and left click on it and then on OK and it is done. If you want to reverse that just open whatever page it is you want to have as your home page and use the same method.

If you are using Chrome go to Tools>Settings>On startup>left click on "Open a specific page or set of pages" and on "Set Pages",copy in the address you want and click OK.

2. If you are using Firefox or Internet Explorer then you have other search engines available to you through the box on the right hand side of your Navigation Toolbar. If you are using Chrome you can specify your default search engine of choice by going to Tools>Settings>Search and selecting your preferred search engine.

3. When using Google:
- Open Search Settings by
left clicking on the gear wheel Tool icon in the top right corner of the Google page as soon as it is available to you and choose Search Settings.  Make sure the settings are as you want them.  I suggest you exclude Google Instant Predictions, set the Number of Results at 30 or 50 per page and elect to open your search results in a new browser window.  Then save your preferences. You may find that from time to time your preferences have to be reset.
- Keep search terms simple or just try typing in your question.
- Use advanced search to search for an exact phrase or words until you know the shortcuts you find helpful.

Is there a “best” search engine or a “best” way of finding what we want on the Web?

A search on Google for “searching the web” gave about 362,000,000 results in 0.20 seconds. A Google search for the “best search engine” gave about 1,000,000,000 results in 0.20 seconds. Mind you, the number of results isn’t everything as there is often much duplication in them.  Those speeds are for 50 results per page.

If you search for the same thing on different search engines the search results can be different. The University of Pittsburgh and the Pennsylvania State University in July 2005 released results of a study which showed that only 1.1% of results on the first page from
Google, Yahoo!, MSN, AOL and Ask, previously five of the most popular search engines in the USA, were the same.

Search engines, like most things, have been reviewed on the web. In July 2011 Consumer Search updated an analysis of reviews of search engines. It reported that Google ranked top and Bing next with DuckDuckGo
being selected as the best private browsing search engine. The site has much other very useful information about search engines.

That analysis relied in part on a review by the University of California Berkeley Teaching Library, that certainly seems to have an objectivity lacking in some other reviews. It prefers Google, Yahoo! Search and Exalead, with an analysis of their particular features, in its assessment of the “best search engine”, last updated 8 May 2012. If you want to look at just one site about search engines this is possibly the best. It evaluates the engines and helps to guide you as to the best way to find what you want on the web. Equally if you want just one basic tutorial on searching the web look at the University of South Carolina Beaufort Library site, last updated 7 October 2010.

Different search engines function differently. Google and are link–ranking engines, which mean they consider the relevance and importance of the links that link to a website and the sites the website links to. On the other hand, Yahoo ranks by general content. It looks at keywords in the headings  of the web page and in its content. Therefore, different search engines provide different results.

If you want to delve further and get some idea of the full range of search engines, the ones best for particular subjects and their main strengths try going to Internet Tutorials, Search Engine Colossus, Search Engine Guide,, Search Engine Showdown or Phil Bradley's site, a very neat helpful site mentioned again below. Examples of specialist sites are NameBase, TechNet, Pipers, which has a NZ connection, and NZ Search, a specialist NZ search engine. A different kind of resource is linked to the Wellington City Libraries and giving access to materials not otherwise readily reached. Another unusual one worth special mention is The Guide DB, which theoretically enables you to source over 47 million different guides and manuals.  The Search Engine List  maintains a list of search engines.

If you want to use a number of search engines at the same time you can use a so-called meta-search engine such as Dogpile and Mamma Metasearch. They search other search engines and give you their version of the results. However, they have real limitations, some spelt out in the UC Berkeley Library pages and others at Search Engine Showdown.

There are also multiple search engines. You enter a term into a master window and it gets copied to the search engines, including meta-search ones, that it lists. You then click on the engines you want to use. Each opens in its own window. One of the better ones is a local product, Engines2Go, the work of a Dr David Hingston of Heke St, Ngaio, which also has separate Australian and New Zealand editions.  [Unfortunately they haven't been updated since 2008.]  I have sometimes got an answer through them when the main search engines have not been able to help. For example, I was once asked if I could find the source of -
"The craw's killed the poosie-o, the poosie-o, the poosie-o,
The mickle cat sat down and grat
In Willie's wee-bit hoosie-o."
Google was no use at that time so I tried Engines2Go. It couldn't help with the first line but it helped source it from the second line.

If you want to know what is offering with a New Zealand emphasis look at StartPage NZ or give priority in your Google search to New Zealand sites or take a look at the sites already mentioned, NZ Search, Phil Bradley's list of 51 New Zealand search engines and Search Engine Colossus or use the NZ Engines2Go site.

Good guides to the best searching techniques, simple and advanced, can be found at sites like the UC Berkeley Library and the University of South Carolina Beaufort Library ones already mentioned or the following pages: Kent State University, Web Search and Internet for Beginners, Search Engines Showdown or Internet Tutorials.

For a resume of new search engines see Phil Bradley's site. Phil Bradley, like UC Berkeley Library, has good things to say about Exalead in other parts of his Blog. He also has an excellent page on his site with tips on the best search engines for particular purposes.

If you just want lists of other people’s favourite 100 search engines there are sites like ReadWriteWeb.

For the history of search engines see Wikipedia.

Once you think you have a handle on searching the web its time to think of searching the invisible web, what is not available through ordinary search engines. Have a look at this UC Berkeley page to get to grips with databases the search engines don't reach and follow up this link to Wikipedia for more information.

Good luck for successful searching.


A list of reasonably up to date articles about web browsers and their preferences:
Wikipedia comparison of web browsers - 7 July 2012.
CNet - Firefox 13, 4 June 2012, IE9, 14 March 2011, and Chrome 20, 28 June 2012.

Gizmo's Freeware - 30 June 2012 - Firefox and Opera.
TopTenReviews – 2012 , Chrome, Firefox, IE. 
Tom's Hardware - 5 July 2012 - Chrome by a nose over Firefox
PC World - 27 February 2012 - Chrome
HubPages – 2012, general.
TechRadar - January 2012, horses for courses

Older reviews: 

Consumer Search - July 2011, Firefox.
ZDNet - November 2011 - Chrome.  – November 2011 – Chrome.

Other: – dedicated to browser developments.
Browserscope – a tool to compare your browser with others.

[Updated 10 July 2012.]

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