Searching The Internet: Part I

October 20, 1998

In the Industrial Age, we mined our raw materials from quarries and forests. In the Information Age, our quarries will be the networks where information raw materials are storied. Although stone quarries will not disappear, most people will be using information as a raw material and building information products from the building blocks that they mine from the networks -- the Internet.

In the Industrial Age, we had a few experts and lots of quarry workers. In the Information Age, everyone will have to be an information geologist, able to explore, examine, and plan just how to find the right information ores for their particular tasks. This and the next two issues of NetSA will discuss some techniques for finding information raw materials on the Internet. These techniques will be important to you as school and LEA administrators, important for your teachers as they mine for new and up-to-date teaching resources on the Internet, and to your students as they prepare to become lifelong learners.

There is a great deal of talk today about distance learning, college and continuing education courses that are taught over the Internet. I am not yet convinced that the web can replace the classroom. However, I am convinced that people will be learning and growing personally and professionally over the Internet. I believe that most of these learning experiences will be more casual and "just in time" by nature, and that they will require the learner to be able to "mine" the Internet for the information and experiences they need.

Today, I'm going to briefly describe three tools that are available to you as you search for information on the Internet. Next week we will learn how to talk to search engines through the Boolean language. The week after that, we will learn the process for searching the Internet using, a model called S.E.A.R.C.H.


Internet Searching Tools:

There are three major search tools available to you as you look for information resources on the Internet. Each has its own unique strengths and weaknesses.

1. Topic Oriented Directories

These tools are hierarchically structured directories of web pages and other information resources on the Internet. You begin with a fairly broad list of subjects: art, business, computers, games, health, home, news, recreation, reference, regional, etc. You select and click the subject that comes closest to helping you solve your problem and are presented with a list of topics that fall under your selected subject. For instance, when I click "Reference" using the NewHoo topic directory (, Education is one of the topics that I receive. Next I click "Education" and receive a large number of subtopics which include: art education, continued education, distance learning, education reform, educational news, home schooling, special education, technology, etc.

In essence we are browsing through a topic tree, logically seeking our information solutions. When I click "Education Reform" I receive a list of five Internet websites, each of which deal with education reform. This is the major advantage of Topic directories, that when you finally click on the topic you seek, you will get a very short but condensed list of Internet resources. The list is condensed in that all of the hits are relevant to the selected topic. As a comparison, when I typed "education reform" into HotBot ( a very large search engine, I received 233,447 matches, many of which have little to do with improving learning.

The biggest disadvantage of the topic directory is that they are largely built be people, web builders who have registered their web resources onto the directory. Therefore, there will be many resources out there that will not show up on any of the topic directories, valuable information that you will miss if you rely exclusively on topic directories.

Here are just a few Topic Oriented Directories:

Yahoo --
Galaxy --
NewHoo --
Netscape Netcenter --
Internet Start --
LookSmart --
Snap --
Apali (Spanish) --

Education Related Topic Directories:

Kathy Schrock's Guide for Educators
Landmarks for Schools
Planet K-12


2. Search Engines

Search engines are like topic oriented directories in that they have a database or index that represents their knowledge of what is available on the Internet. They also have a web page through which we operate the tool. The major difference between topic directories and search engines is in how they build their databases.

Search engines employ what's called "spiders" or "crawlers." These are small computer programs that wander around on the Internet looking for new information. They are like digital robots that move to places with which they are already familiar, looking for what has changed. When they find changes, new information resources, they collect the data and scurry back to their search engine and add the information to the database. Consequently, the database grows automatically, and they are typically enormous in size, usually holding information on more than a hundred million web pages.

Search engines are also searched rather than browsed. You tell the search engine what you are looking for and it tells you what it knows about. This is where some skill is required. You search engine is your information assistant, and the degree to which it is able to help you depends on the degree to which you are able to communicate your needs. This requires a language called Boolean. We will explore this concept in next week's NetSA.

The advantage of the search engine is its size. The major tools represent significant portions of the Internet meaning that you will receive links to many resources that did not appear in a topic directory browse. This is also the disadvantage of search engines. Instead of 5 pages on Education Reform, we got over two-hundred thousand pages with HotBot. Describing to the search engine exactly what you want to find is a skill that must be honed with experience.

Here are some search engines:

Alta Vista

Meta Search Engines (search engines that search other search engines)

Highway 61


3. Net-Smarts

This search tool is not really a computer tool. It is a growing sense of being "net-wise." As you gain more experience in using and searching the Internet, you will have an increasing sense of the best first place to go to find the information that you seek.

Searching the Internet is very much like being a detective. You are investigating a digital world, looking for clues, drawing conclusions, and finding answers. It involves asking questions.

  • Why would someone publish this information on the Internet?
  • What type of organization would publish this information?
  • What kind of server would it be on: commercial, educational, government?
  • What other information would likely appear on a page with the information that you seek?

I did a workshop a few months ago on advanced Internet search strategies. A few days later I received an e-mail message from one of the participants of the workshop, a media specialist. She explained that one of her students was looking for information on the physical therapy program at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. She had tried the specific techniques that I had taught without success. After reading the e-mail, I asked the question, "Where would someone publish information about the physical therapy program at UNC." As you have already figured out, the UNC website.

On the UNC website (, they have a small search tool for searching all UNC web pages. I typed in "physical therapy" and received a list of 17 web pages that mentioned the term, fifteen from the School of Medicine and two from the English Department (don't ask!). Then I e-mailed the results and strategy back to the media specialist.

The last installment of this series of articles on searching the Internet will describe a process for conducting Internet searches. It is effective and the model is also easy to teach to other people. However, it is not a magic button. There is no one way to mine the Internet. It comes from effective processes, problem-solving skills, and experience, and it is fun.



Note: Much of the content of this issue comes directly from the new book...
Raw Materials for the Mind: Teaching & Learning in
Information & technology Rich Schools
by David Warlick
ISBN 0-9667432-0-2

Copyright © 1998 by David Warlick
All rights reserved