When most people search the Web they simply type a few words or a sentence into Google and see what comes back. This works a lot of the time, but if you are searching a complex topic and need some precision, there are other techniques to use. Conducting Web searches on complex topics such as inventions can seem like an intimidating task. Fortunately, they are not as bad as they may appear. By organizing information a little bit before searching the Web, the task becomes much easier.
The first thing to do is to get your thoughts together. Why are you searching the Web? What topics are you interested in investigating? Once you have answered these questions you can begin to form the necessary queries. Professor Heting Chu has written extensively about information retrieval. Here are a few pointers from her book:
- Creating a query is how the search is formulated. To prepare a query one has to break a concept up into smaller meaningful parts that can be put into the search engine in a structured manner.
- The query has to take into consideration how information is represented in a system so that the results that are returned from the query are not overly broad.
If you were new to Fort Wayne and wanted to find inventors who might be interested in sharing ideas, you would break the broad idea of inventors into multiple parts. For instance, you start with inventors, but you might also consider invention, innovation, innovators, idea people, and trendsetters as related concepts. (The thesaurus feature in word processing programs can be used to find synonyms for your main concept.)
Try to group similar ideas together into concepts. This gives you potential search terms to use and highlights the ones that are so similar, some can be discarded. You can also include modifiers that you think will help narrow the search. Don’t forget to jot down terms that you want to exclude. Prohibiting certain terms is useful when you want to limit the likelihood of overly broad or irrelevant results.
Sometimes placing concepts in a table is helpful for organizing them into likely search terms.
|Main concept||Concept 1||Concept 2||Modifiers||Exclude|
The concepts listed in the table are a list of possible search terms for a query. The next step is to string the terms together in a way that search engines can use to retrieve the information that you want.
The two most basic types of searches are Boolean (using the regular Google-style search box interface) and advanced searches.
According to Professor Chu, here are a few things to keep in mind about Boolean searches:
- The three most basic operators are: AND, OR, and NOT. (There are others but these are the most basic and frequently used.)
- They are typically processed in this order: NOT, AND, and OR.
- You can change order using (). The innermost () are typically processed first.
- As necessary, check the system instructions to determine if case sensitive, fuzzy (imprecise), or truncated (using a partial word) searches are the norm.
The general rules above will work decently for Boolean searches most of the time, regardless of the search engine. However, if you need to be precise, customize the query for the specific search engine you plan to use. In order to get the best results from different search engines, the same query should be written a little bit differently. For example, Google Patents has some operators that are different from the US Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) search engine. If you get stuck at this point, check for a website that provides instructions about using a particular search engine. For the search engines described in this paragraph, Google has a guide for users and so does the USPTO.
Now, back to our example. To search for inventors in Fort Wayne who like to hang out together, you might write a query like: (((Fort AND Wayne) AND Inventors) AND Club OR Group) NOT Team.
Note that the parentheses have changed the order in which the query is processed. For this query Fort Wayne is first, inventors is second, club is third, group is fourth, and team is last. In plain language the search is “Fort Wayne Inventors Club or Group but not Team.” If the parentheses were absent, not would have been processed first, and or last. Also, this is not the only query that works. Keep in mind that several can be written based upon the different concepts about inventors.
Advanced searches have a different interface. The interface may include dropdown menus and/or distinct fields that allow you to select specific parts of a document (e.g., abstract or title) to search.
You might have to hunt around for the advanced search interface. Usually there is a hyperlink or another menu to the advanced search feature. To find it for Google, go to lower right corner of the page and click Settings → Advanced search. To find it for Google Patents, type “Google patents advanced search” into the search bar. Use the same search term creation concepts that you used for the Boolean search. However, in an advanced search you just put your search terms into the respective fields. There is no need to write operators for an advanced search. The operators are typically selected from a dropdown menu or they are defined by the fields on the page.
Good luck and happy searching!
If you have any insights about searches, please share them here on our blog.
Chu, H. (2007). Information representation and retrieval in the digital age. Medford, New Jersey: Information Today, Inc.
For additional information about Google Patents see this Webology paper.