Search Engines: Access Isn't Enough

Scott H. Rule, Aichi Gakuin University


Key Words: Research, Internet, Computers
Learner English Level: Intermediate to Advanced
Learner Maturity Level: High School to Adult
Preparation Time:15 minutes
Activity Time: 90 minutes

This activity and accompanying worksheet (see appendix) serve as scaffolding for students' first Internet search. It is meant to foster the meta-cognitive skills necessary for their subsequent searches. Please note that it assumes at least a casual understanding of search engines on the part of the teacher.

Awareness, Attitude, and Skill

The Internet has been referred to as "the largest library in the world." There are, of course, a number of differences between the Internet and a library. These differences, while they might seem obvious to teachers with Internet experience, are new concepts to most students. When students do an Internet search they expect to turn up a few well-written sources similar to those they might find at a library. What they instead turn up is a large number of sources mostly unrelated to their topic. Related material is often written by laypeople and contains more graphics then text. To make more fruitful use of their time, students need to be made explicitly aware of the differences between a library and an Internet search (as well as gain the attitude and skills necessary to cope with the differences).


Library material is searchable by author, subject, and title. Web pages, on the other hand, are searchable by words contained within the text. With this in mind, students need to spend more time considering key words for their search. Is the spelling correct? Are any of them homonyms that might pull up unrelated pages? I illustrate the importance of these pre-questions by typing a student's topic (e.g., dolphins) into the search engine. I first type the word with incorrect spelling so students see that it produces no search results. I then type it correctly and point out a.) the sheer number of results and b.) the number of results relating to the Miami Dolphins (the American football team). Finally, I elicit two more key words to narrow the results, and show how to restrict a search to avoid homonyms (in the case of Yahoo, by typing "-football").


Libraries contain material from "reputable" sources (e.g., authors and professors) that have been edited. A page on the Internet may have been written by a scholar or an elementary school student. With this in mind, students need to quickly scan a site to determine who designed it and whether the caliber of the material is appropriate for their research. To illustrate these points I search ahead of time for two sites per-taining to a student's topic. I try to find a scholarly site and a noticeable opposite (e.g., a professor's paper about dolphins' sensory abilities and a student's book report about dolphins). I point out the obvious clues (e.g., the ".edu" or ".ac" in the URL) as well as the more subjective differences (e.g., ratio of text to graphics and use of color). The point here is not to denigrate one site or the other, but to foster a healthy skepticism regarding the research value of a site.


Libraries contain limited types of material (e.g., books and journals). The Internet contains these as well as many new, often less informative types of sources (e.g., link pages and graphic pages). With this in mind, students need to quickly scan a site to determine whether it contains the specific information they are looking for (as opposed to the more common response of saving everything they find). To foster this more critical approach, I first ask a student to scan a site pertaining to their topic. If the information they are seeking is not immediately apparent, I demonstrate the use of Netscape's "Find" feature. I type in the student's second and then third key word, and ask them to determine whether the designer (of the Web site) uses the words in the sense that they (the student) had intended.

One clear advantage of this activity is that students spend a fruitful ninety minutes on the Internet and, for the most part, walk away with resources that they might not otherwise have found. It is worth noting, however, that the advantages are much more far reaching. "Narrowing the Topic" and "Writing a Thesis Statement" are ho stages of the research process with which my students have difficulty. The same meta-cognitive skills that help facilitate the Internet search assist in these stages as well. I have found that students are better able to articulate their narrowed topics and thesis statements through working with Internet search engines.

Appendix: Accompanying Worksheet

Introduction to Search Engines

Yahoo <>

The Internet

  1. What kinds of material are available on the Internet (e.g., text, pictures)?
  2. Who puts it there?
  3. What kind of material are you looking for? Be specific. For example,
  4. information on Princess Diana's childhood and whether she went to college.

Your Search

  1. What three key words will you use?
    1. Are you sure of the spelling?
    2. Do any of these words have multiple meanings? For example, the word "police" will also find "The Police" (the British rock group from the 1980's - Sting was the lead singer).
    3. If so, how will you avoid this? For example, by typing "+police -sting"
  2. If you can't think of any key words, look at the list of categories (and sub-categories) on Yahoo's index page. Which ones can you search under?

The Process