Commentary [Volume 5 No. 1 (2005)]

Searching the World Wide Web

EG Dicks and WH Oldewage-Theron
Vaal University of Technology (formerly know as the Vaal Triangle Technikon) South Africa


Sometimes it can be very frustrating to search the World Wide Web (WWW) because you can either get nothing, or so many links that you will not be able to see all of it. This is because the WWW is not indexed in a standard vocabulary like that which is found in Libraries. In searching the WWW, you are searching text in documents selected for inclusion in the particular search tool database you are using. As authors of this article, we have not attempted to give all the available detail on WWW searching, but to provide the readers with information we have found useful during our searches on the WWW.

Many medical, food science and nutritional journals are now available online. However, most of these require subscription before access is granted to full text articles. It is recommended that the readers should contact their local libraries to assist in this regard. Some journals have full texts available free of charge and have a homepage where information on the journal is made available, or where abstracts can be accessed. Also, author’s instructions can be obtained from the home page, should you want to write a scientific paper or information abstract for the particular journal.

Rules for the Internet searcher

Carefully choose a starting point. There are web search engines, which can be the quickest way to start. The problem is that many sites contain unnecessary information and also lack all the possible information. It is, however, a good starting point to attain a quick overview. Specialized sites contain links with other similar sites, which may include search engines though intuition or a guess may sometimes be the quickest way to find a particular site. There are also FAQs (Frequently Asked Questions) and discussion groups (Keep the question as short as possible and please remember to be polite to a specific user in the group and make sure to send a ‘thank you’ afterwards).

Do not accept failure too quickly and as such do not give up if a search programme responds, “nothing found” as there are different starting points and methods to use and somewhere along the line you may get lucky.

Do not accept success too quickly and therefore if you find what you wanted, it is not the end of the road because there might be better information available much faster should you use another method of searching.

According to Van der Walt [1] the steps in searching the web include the following:
1. Analyse your topic before you begin
2. Use the Boolean technique
3. Use truncation
4. Interpret each unique search screen
5. List of search tools
6. Search tips
7. Evaluating WWW information

1. Analyse your topic before you begin

To start, think of variants, synonyms and related themes to find what you want. The commonly used words may get irrelevant documents containing the word searched for but may not be related to your subject.

The success of searches depends on the following:
1. your ability to create exact matches between terms searched for and terms used in the documents
2. the size and contents of the database you should choose and
3. the features for searching its content successfully [1].

2. Boolean operators

The Boolean techniques of searching provides you with the power to narrow down your search to a reasonable number of potentially useful documents [1]. With the Boolean search, keywords or phrases are combined with AND, OR, NOT to get more precise results.

Concept Appearance Meaning Examples
And AND Match all of these words Pregnancy AND smoking
Or OR Match at least one of these words Diet OR nutrition
Not NOT Match if this key word is not present Flavour NOT infusion
Adjacent “quotation marks” Match these keywords if they are next to each other, in order “Vitamin A fortification”
Grouping (Parentheses) Match these keywords before matching the rest of the keywords (Aroma AND extraction) AND (flavour OR taste)

The search string can be simple or very complex. More keywords for all the combinations can be used, for example cat OR dog OR pet OR pets and so on [2].

3. Truncation

Truncation is an integral part of keyword searching as it allows the user to incorporate variant word endings into a search. It is used to search a word stem and retrieve all variations of the stem. [3] It can match anything for example micro* would match words that begin with micro.

4. Interpret each unique search screen

Each search engine has its own unique search screen with a simple or an advanced option. It is recommended that a beginner should start with the “simple” option and then proceed to the “advanced” option. It will either have a facility where you have to select from a list of topics or to search by words that you have to type. Make use of the Boolean operators in this section if the search engine supports it. Click on search/find to start the process. Some search engines give the option to select language, dates etc [1].

5. List of search engines

Meta-search engines
(Van der Walt, 199:30-33) General/popular search engines
Alta Vista
Northern light
Ananzi (South African)
Yahoo http//
WoYaa! (Africa)

6. Search tips

Van der Walt [1] listed some tips for searching the WWW:

1. Check your spelling.
2. Search for both American and English spelling eg behavior/behaviour.
3. Use plurals if the search engine cannot truncate.
4. Avoid using the Internet during peak hours because the reaction time will be very slow or use less known search tools.
5. If you use an acronym also use the full words eg FAO / Food and Agricultural Organization.
6. Use a minute to save an hour. Read the instructions or “help” screens of a search engine before doing a search. Be on the lookout for case sensitive settings.
7. Use the same search words, then synonyms or related terms in a number of different search engines. Be sure to make a list of the ones you have used to avoid duplication. For greater precision and comprehensiveness, try using complex searches or a Varity [Varity or variety?] of advanced search options in a number of different search engines.
8. Check online help of Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ’s).

7. Criteria for evaluation of information on the WWW

1. Evaluate the scope of the site by looking for the statement or the purpose of the site, statements of the scope and limitations that may apply and site comprehensiveness.
2. Evaluate the authority and bias of the Internet site. Look for the person who provided the information and why, a point of viewing being sold to the used, explicit statement of authority – such as a statement of institutional support, the authors credentials or qualifications, a disclaimer hypertext link.
3. Evaluate the accuracy of the site by looking for the posting of the source of information, author/creator/publisher and their credentials, reference from other resources on the same or related topics and a source list.
4. Evaluate the timeliness of the site by looking for posting and revision dates, policy statements for information maintenance as well as link maintenance (if it is working.)
5. Evaluate the permanence of the site by looking for explicit statements of temporary or chancing location of servers or files, author’s relationship to the server infrastructure and in permanent of transitory nature of information.
6. Evaluate tany [any?] “Value-added” service of the site by looking out for search tools, descriptions of site structure, help information, summaries or abstracts and ratings and/or evaluations.
7. Evaluate the presentation and organization of the site by looking for intuitive site organization for the appropriate audience, appropriate use of graphics and multi-media, help and example sections appropriately placed and navigational links provided back to starting points or table of content pages.


Intuition may be the best tool: as you learn from experience, you will progressively get better at searches. Accuracy is not guaranteed. The information on the Internet is not always accurate as the following can happen:
• factual errors,
• accidental omission outdated information,
• opinions which are stated as facts,
• bias,
• conflict of interest as well as
• fraud.


1. Van der Walt EJ Internet: Searching the World Wide Web. Scientific series. Ferdinant Postma Library Potchefstroom University for CHE, Potchefstroom. 1999.

2. Lombard RR and G Janse van Rensburg The Internet and theUuse Thereof. Workshop notes presented on 18th May 1998 at the Vaal Triangle Technikon.1998.

3. Du Toit T Searching the Web. Workshop notes presented at the 18th Biennial Congress Nutrition Society of SA, and 6TH Biennial Congress Association for Dietetics in SA. From Lab to land nutrition congress, Durban. 2000.

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