Search engines provide a way of doing research on the Internet, and they can be effective tools. However, to use them effectively for research, you need to be aware of their strengths and weaknesses, as well as how and when to use them.

What a Search Engine isn’t.
Search engines are not an authoritative resource for all the information on the Internet. Experts estimate that maybe one third of the Web is indexed in search engines. Search engines do not search documents in special formats, such as online databases. Just because you didn’t find something through a search engine, doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist on the Internet. Furthermore, there is plenty of valuable information that doesn’t make it online at all, or was published prior to the mid-1990s when the Web became popularized. To be most effective in your research, use search engines in conjunction with other research methods — specialized web sites, books, magazines, public library, people, telephone, email, etc.

When to use a Search Engine.
Search engines are most useful for finding information when you have a clear idea of what you’re looking for, but no idea where to begin looking. If you have a good idea where the information will be, for instance a government agency or newspaper, go to a site that organizes that type of entity, not a search engine (Yahoo is good for this).

How to use a Search Engine.
The more specific you are with your search terms, the more productive your research will be. It is worth your while to learn and use the special search techniques that search engines provide to help focus your search so you end up with more relevant material. The techniques include: including or excluding search terms, exact phrase searching (using quotation marks), proximity searching, and other tools. Each search engine works a little differently, so be sure to check out their Search Tips or Help or Advanced Search options, so you know how they’re set up.

Selected Search Engines.

Google (
Google attempts to find the “authoritative” source by counting the number of links to that site.

Northern Light (
Has folders that attempt to organize your hits.

Common endings:
“com” for commercial, “edu “for educational, “org” for other organizations, “gov” for U.S. federal government, “mil” for U.S. military, “net” for Internet service providers and networks.

Updated Feb 2010.  Please send website corrections to