How to Search Better: Tips for Dealing with the Ocean of Information on the Internet

Education & Technology

We’ve all been there: Hands raised over the keyboard, that almost blank browser page with the Google Doodle and the search box underneath it. You type in your first search term and it comes back with 97,500,000 results. Yikes!

There are four problems associated with turning a search into a completed project and boy are they weighing on your mind as your fingers hover over the keyboard. What are you going to do with the vast ocean of information your search term just returned? How are you going to keep track of it? How are you going to narrow it down? And how are you going to translate what you find into a completed project?

Too Much Stuff

Take a deep breath: It’s all going to be okay! The first step in an internet search is always an exercise in early-stage fishing: you’re casting your net widely and that’s good. You’re maximizing the possibility that you will find some really good stuff. But here is the conundrum: is your net too wide? If you cast it more narrowly will you miss a species of fish you really need?

The first thing I do is engage in a little pre-search prep: I write a really short description of what my project, paper, presentation or assignment is. I put that on a post-it note and stick it to the top of my screen. The second thing I do is re-evaluate the first search term I think of with Google’s help. I do this by typing in the term a second time but very, very slowly so Google can suggest another phrase while I’m typing.

Let’s say you’re interested in the best techniques for teaching First Graders a second language. If you wrote “teaching a second language” you would definitely get 98 million hits. But if you type it again slowly, by the time you get to “to” Google will pop up a list of possible ways to complete your search term. For example, Google might suggest completing the phrase with “adults,”  “preschoolers” or “toddlers.” Now you know that you can cast a wide net that’s not too wide by completing your search term with something a bit more specific. Add “first graders” after “to” and your “catch” will narrow to just under 8 million hits.

google dropdown search

Okay, 8 million hits still seems like too much, but remember you’ve only just started fishing. Give yourself permission to stroll those waters leisurely, reading the title of the links that populate the first six to ten pages. Sampling the titles, thinking about commonalities and differences, allows you to devise an even narrower search phrase. Don’t stop your review after the first page or even the second: continuing to stroll to page ten of a Google search allows you to find gold among the fish. You may not see something as useful to you in the early pages as the “ESL Lesson Plans for Grade School” link that appears on page 10.

Now that you’ve got gold in your net, go back to an empty Google search page and type in the narrower term. If it returns a much more manageable yield—72,400 hits, say—you’re in business. You can start rolling down the links and sampling them to see what you can use. Before you take your term and start searching other types of materials like videos, blogs, discussions, or books, you need to set up a system to keep track of your “finds.”

Organizing Your “Catch”

There are a lot of software tools out there that can help you organize your projects, but sometimes they are pricey and the learning curve takes much longer than you have to complete your project. I like to keep it simple. One thing I’ve learned over the years is that I don’t have to spend money to be effective: I can use what I have. So in addition to my favorite focusing technology—the post-it note on the top of the screen—I like to use my browser bookmarks, my YouTube channel (if videos are relevant to my project) and a Word doc. Really.

Bookmark Subdirectories

To turn bookmarks into an active organizational tool, you need to know how to set up bookmark sub-directories. Here’s a quick tutorial I did:

The main takeaways from the tutorial are these:

  1. First, create a Bookmark Sub-directory with the name of your project.
  2. Next create several other Bookmark Sub-directories under the first one:
    1. To keep track of the type of media you’re bookmarking, make second level subdirectories like “Video,” “Blog,” or “Discussions.”
    2. To keep track of the topics you’re finding make second level subdirectories like “Teaching Techniques,” or “Lesson Plans,” or something else that makes sense for your project.

Now as you work through the links that result from your search you can save the links in the general bookmark subdirectory or in one of the second level sub-directories.

To stay on track, if you find yourself getting distracted by all kinds of wonderful things that aren’t quite what you need, take a minute to meditate on your post-it note and then set up a new bookmark sub-directory called “For Later.” Just having that place to deposit random goodness makes it easier for me to keep myself from spending hours on extraneous stuff I thought would only distract me for a minute or two.

YouTube Channel Organizational Tools

If you decide to use your search term for videos, you will find that the majority of the videos that turn up are from YouTube. Because I regularly use YouTube videos as a kind of “punctuation” to my live classes on WizIQ, I realized pretty early on that I could organize my finds using YouTube channel tools.

In fact, I first set up a YouTube account just as a way to keep track of the materials I was gathering. Now, I create YouTube videos, as well as use YouTube as my cookbook, my teacher, and my TV provider. But back when I started I just wanted to classify and store videos that could expand my knowledge and feed my projects. If your work cries out for some video content, here is a tutorial I made on how to use YouTube organizational tools:

The main takeaways from my video on YouTube are:

  1. Playlists can be used to keep track of videos that are relevant to your project.
  2. For more specific organization, the “Collections” feature can be used to keep track of YouTube content creators who routinely or exclusively post or “favorite” videos that are relevant to your project.

And like the “For Later” bookmark sub-directory trick, you can add videos to the “Watch Later” list that is a regular feature of your YouTube channel.

Word as an Organizer

I also use Word Docs to keep track of the links I find when I’m building up a search for a project. I tend to set up two separate documents. In the first one, I keep a history of the search terms I’ve used so far, with one term per line, alphabetizing them as I insert them into the list. This keeps me from losing time by repeating search terms or phrases. On the second word doc, I write the outline of my project. I start with a broad description of what I need to do and work my way down through the specific points I want to cover. Once I have the second doc ready, I use it to narrow my search. But you could use it as an organizational tool by copying the useful links you find into the section of your outline where you think they will be most relevant.

Narrowing Your “Catch”

Now that you’ve got your net on board, you can start sorting through your “fish” to find the most useful links for your project. At this point if you have been using the Bookmark or YouTube system, you should set up that Word Doc outline I mentioned in the last paragraph. As you work systematically through your “finds” decide which links won’t work for you and either delete them or move them to the “For Later” repository you’ve set up.

Don’t be afraid to scratch your original decision and change your focus, if you decide you need to, although it’s important to make sure you have enough time to restart your search and still get your assignment, paper or presentation done on time.

The links that will work for you should be transferred to the section of your outline where they will be most useful. If you’re a more organized person than I am, you can start to annotate the links as you go. (More about that in the next section.) If you’re like me, though, you’ll probably read, watch, and review the materials you’ve linked, moving the “good” ones to the outline, and deleting or otherwise setting the other links aside.

Building Your Search into Your Final Project

When your catch has been winnowed out, and you have the materials you know you will use, write short descriptions or annotations in the outline, replacing the links with a citation, or hyper-linking the original URL to the citation.

Following that, your next job will be to turn your outline into a narrative, a presentation, or a video script, depending on what your assignment was. Don’t be afraid to rethink your outline at this point either, or your links, or start another search, if you have time. Constructing the final project is frequently the most creative point in the process: as you build a deeper understanding of your topic, the way you construct your project may change for the better. But you have to allow that to happen.

The Beauty of a Great Search

A great search yields a lot of benefits:

  1. You learn how to develop a research style that fits you.
  2. You become experienced at developing and narrowing search terms.
  3. You build up a list of items for later use in your bookmark sub-directories or YouTube playlists or channel collections.
  4. And now you’ve got a “For Later” repository that not only may guide your future searches but that also allows you to reward yourself with a “victory cruise” around your metaphorical ocean after your project is complete.

Rewarding yourself with a “victory cruise” through your saved materials can be a great treat. I confess I love to reward myself for a completed job by reading that great blog I found that had absolutely nothing to do with my project, or by watching silly videos that I narrowly avoided losing an afternoon to by watching them when I was supposed to be working.

Your Search Tips?

Finally, if you have search habits or tips that you would like to impart, please feel free to put them in the comments. I’m always on the lookout for new ideas. Happy searching!

Dr. Nancy Zingrone

Dr. Nancy Zingrone has a PhD in psychology from the University of Edinburgh and an MSEd in Higher Education from Northern Illinois University. She is passionate about online education, having learned a significant amount of what she knows about teaching online from the incomparable Dr. Nellie Deutsch and the wonderful folks at WizIQ. Her work background includes more than twenty years in personal and individual differences research, publishing, higher education administration, and adult education.

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