Helpful Information: How to Search
On this site references are provided where they may be helpful, excepting where the author has no more inspiration for a web search than is available from reading the text. That is to say - do your own critical research. On that basis, here are some tips we have found useful to that end.
We commence with the suggestion not to trust anything you read on the internet. Liar’s paradox anyone? There are many personal websites that are pretty conjectural (ahem) and may provide red herrings. Unless that is exactly what you are after “…Two of your finest red herrings please”
That is not to say that small individually maintained sites are not often a great source, especially of uncommon and obscure information (Magazine *blushes*). It’s just that the Dunning-Kruger effect and the low bar does not guarantee quality, even if couched in hushed expert tones.
Always bear in mind that traditional old-fashioned tree-based printed books are still a good source, although a similar disclaimer arises. Works of popular science often serve up common tropes uncritically such as the infamous ’there are more people alive now than have died’ 1 or ‘Easter Island witnessed an ecological collapse brought on by the profligacy of its inhabitants’ 2. Some fact-checker/debunking websites can be useful in this regard, again with caution.
For a specific academic subject, a standard text is a good resource, such as The Art of Electronics in the case of that realm of engineering. BBC documentaries are a surprisingly good source too, for example anything by Jim Al-Khalili. Though documentaries in general can vary widely in accuracy, for example the one that claimed that escaping slaves evolved to run fast in the Caribbean3… (That was broadcast on television!)
And so, on to the Internet at large…
Wikipedia is sometimes perceived as entirely unreliable, given its open nature, especially so given the concerns outlined above. It’s true that parties with a significant vested interest can inject or sway an article. Controversial subjects are by their very nature not generally presented well on the site either. However, in the main it is a good source of up-to-date information (and so towers over printed encylopedias in that regard), indeed the late Freeman Dyson said:
“ Among my friends and aquaintances, everybody distrusts Wikipedia and everbody uses it. […] The information it contains is totally unreliable and surprisingly accurate. […] The public has a distorted view of science, because children are taught in school that science is a collection of firmly established truths. In fact science is not a collection of truths. It is a continuing exploration of mysteries.
Science […] is an unending argument between a great multitude of voices. It resembles Wikipedia much more than it resembles the Encylcopedia Britannica.” 4
The biggest problem with the site is that the more technical articles are simply too impenetrable or obscure to be useful, particularly in Mathematics. Though some progress has been made in that regard, see simple.wikipedia.org
Focussing in on specific tips:
Choice of search engine.
Google is still pretty reliable, although in some domains (pun not intended!) is increasingly dominated by commercial and SEO optimised sites, which are often not what one is after, even if you’re shopping.
Duck Duck Go is sometimes abysmal in comparison although fairly okay for day-to-day stuff and sometimes good for showing up more random results. It also has less tracking and data-mining (so they claim), though is no less commerce oriented ultimately. Bing is similar, Yahoo
fairly brokenis Bing.
Here are some alternatives that will throw up ‘off the beaten track’ results or at least eliminate homogeneity (In no particular order):
- Mojeek - independent search provider alternative. Many broken links, lots of dusty corners (if that appeals to you).
- Million Short - a little fiddly. Cuts out the first million results, or whatever you specify. Good for going beyond the usual suspects.
- startpage - An alternate frontend for google search that claims to eliminate tracking etc. Founded in the Netherlands.
- Qwant - Aiming to become a mainstream competitive search engine, from France.
- Teclis - a small project to provide an alternative search.
- searchmysite - limited in scope, but you might find something.
- The Random Button - there are few different ones usually with a name like stumble.cc or similar. Good for unpredictable web meanderings. This particular one lists sites found on r/internetisbeautiful
- webcrawler.com and w3catalog.com are both early search engines somehow still extant. The former seems to have been modernised somewhat, the latter offers a now archaic but unique window into the web.
- wiby offers a look into the more obscure corners of the web, providing respite from the modern bloated and commercial site. One for the true web-onauts.
Search by exact phrase.
If you enclose your search term in quote marks it will look for exact matches of that phrase. This is helpful when searches throw up a lot of unrelated or keyword-overloaded links. A simple way to go deep into the interwebs looking for gems and oddities.
Hyphen/minus to remove unwanted results.
If one site (such as a major online retailer) or an unwanted alternately spelled keyword is popping up too much you can eradicate it by including with a hyphen (minus symbol) in front eg. “blah -blad”.
Look for an intermediary, such as a site related to the topic and follow links. Wikipedia is good for this. Reddit and Youtube comments in particular can lead the way to treasure. Also, online journalism seems to have come of age, though watch out for click bait and don’t end up in a mind-fi loop !
Talking of which…
Write down your objective before you begin and come back to it at regular intervals.
The internet, as we know, is a weapon of mass distraction and it’s really good for your efficiency (and for your mental health) to take a break and ‘come up for air’. You can lay a guide line for yourself by bookmarking pages (make a temp folder for this?) and also by opening links in new tabs so you can read on before jumping over. Of course the fashion is to ’take your tabs down to the favicons’ by opening so many you can only see the little logo on each one! Pro-tip: multiple browser windows adds to this confusion/fun… We at Magazine do not condone such behaviour 😉
Search by site.
This can be done by typing “site:” and then the website address (without a space) in the search box. This can also be used in conjunction with tip three above, eg. -site:example.com. Alternatively go direct to the site and use theirs if they have one, they’re usualy pretty good these days. [Editors note: remind me to ask our resident nerd to implement one…]
[resident nerd: pay me!]
In your moments of web frustration spare a thought for the coders who make and manipulate the algorithms behind it all. Creating a good reliable search engine is a major and probably NP-complete engineering problem. This has likely been studied somewhere by someone at length - how about you exercise your web diving skills to try and find out?
And finally: Always consider the authors agenda. What could they have to gain from you taking on board what they say? This is not always easy to establish, and is part of a whole scheme of critical thinking skills that probably require an entire media studies degree. You can relax a bit though as this is a consideration mostly only relevant to commercial, political and economic sectors, i.e. where there is more at stake.
Anyway, we hope that was helpful information.
May your searches be fruitful and many!
The true picture, or as close as we can ascertain currently by rigorous statistical methods, is that the determining factor in particular countries’ or regions’ success in various pursuits - athletic or otherwise - is that they have a culture of excellence. That is to say they put a lot of time and effort into training across ages and at a large scale. Something that is clearly evident if you’ve ever seen a Jamaican sports day - it’s like a mini olympics! ↩︎
∞ Last edit/update on: 19 / 3 / 2023