Researching on the Web

1. Plan & Research

You are reading this online, so access to information for a research paper will be easy:  any topic you chose is likely to receive thousands of hits in a search engine. How, though, do you find exactly the details you need? More importantly, how do you find the ones you don’t yet realize you need?

Google, which owns over 60% of search engine market share,¹ has earned its reputation as the go-to search site. It returns results that match the keywords entered, but in a way unlike a library catalog.² Google results are ordered by frequency of use (i.e., by PageRank status) with the highest page ranking first in the results. (That ranking is the result of a proprietary algorithm. You can read a Google technology overview and hear an employee discuss it, if you are interested.) Peter Norvig,  the company’s director of research, says Google Search follows the “popular result first” with one of a lower page ranking status to provide a “diversity” of choices. It’s a system that works amazingly well for most searches, but it can be too diverse when the search is for teacher-pleasing content.

When it’s scholarly details you need, searches come in more flavors than just Google. For example, library catalogs are considered part of the “invisible web” and aren’t found on Google, Yahoo, or Bing. I suggest, a registry that scans the library shelves of its participating members and displays both the results and the library location for each.

Let’s say you have a paper to write for a world history class and you’ve chosen the Byzantine Empire as the topic. Go to Google and key in “Byzantine Empire.” There are over one and a quarter million results:

Instead of trying to look at even a fraction of these links, begin the search at with the same key words. You will get a smaller number of results returned and a higher percentage of them will be teacher-pleasing (scholarly) sources. (Use the advanced search feature to choose a language and avoid fiction or children’s books from being included in the results.)

Over 5000 results are still far too many to sort through, however. To narrow that number, look at the Format column on the left: it breaks the 5000 into subsets like books, articles, DVDs, and internet resources. (Internet Resources has links to the e- and audio-book versions of books, the web addresses of theses and dissertations, and some articles available for download.)

In the Byzantine Empire full search, the first 30 results are general histories; after that, most of the book results are about an aspect of the Byzantine Empire. Any one of these aspect subtopics could inspire a research paper:

What is “narrow” for a book (e.g., culture, politics, art) usually gets narrowed even further for articles. A quick look through the articles turns up several narrowed discussions of culture (e.g., David Jacoby’s “Greek Identity Before the Ottomans,” The Finnish Association for Byzantine Studies’ “Byzantium and the north,” and Giovanni Roberto Ruffini’s “Social Networks in Byzantine Egypt”). Art gets narrowed to articles about one particular piece (e.g., “O Savior, save me, your servant: an unknown masterpiece,” by David Buckton and Paul Hetherington). Music gets narrowed to one aspect of chant (e.g., Dimitrije Stefenovic’s “The trisagion in some Byzantine and Slavonic stichera”).

When you find something you want to read (or view, in the case of the DVDs), click on its title to be redirected to a page set up like this one:

Once you’ve identified some books and/or articles to read and found a few new keywords that can be used in a more specific Google Search, switch back to Google.

Here’s what I found when I plugged the name of one of the Byzantine Empire books into Google Search:

The first result is, as should be expected, the book. The second result, however, is the exciting one: an exhibition at a scholarly institution — this one deserves some exploration. Once on the Education and Events page, shown below, I noticed the blurbs for the lectures yielded (1) new possible topics, (2) names of experts that can be put into Google to find quotes and other information on their expertise, and (3) recordings of the lectures. There is also a link for a booklet from the exhibit.

A result as rich as this one means you won’t need to spend extra time looking at the other 281,998 links. Instead, if you need more information after mining the topic downloads, you can follow where the new names and new key words lead.

Using a search engine that focuses on scholarly sources and following it up with a Google Search to create this example got me from the initial topic idea to the downloaded audio recording of  “Icons and the Practice of Prayer” in less time than it took for you to read the specifics of the search.

Less time searching means more time left in your study period for reading (and in this case, listening to) the helpful materials. Good luck on your papers!

¹ Barbara Hernandez, PC World, reported at July 14, 2010.
² Peter Norvig, 2010 interview with Kathryn Schultz for the Slate column “Being Wrong.”