Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Search strategies and tactics

First, let’s get some definitions in place:  An information goal is your objective—what you want to find out.  It can be very specific or very broad; simple (“what time is sunrise today?”) or complex (“what’s the best internet service provider for my startup in Bangalore?”). 

And now, let’s talk about what a strategy really is…

                - a search strategy is the high-level plan you create and 
                                                        follow to achieve your objective
                - a search tactic is what you actually do to follow the strategic plan

Obviously, there’s a lot of back and forth between these; the dividing line isn’t bright and clear, but more of a slippery slope.   Your goal might shift based on what you learn.  Your tactics might vary as you find roadblocks or problems in your way.  Those little problems that come up might cause you to re-think your strategy—making you pull up for a minute and think of another way to approach the problem.  (One way to approach the problem is to re-define your goal…) 

For instance… Assume your goal is to find out what the role of mercury was in gold mining during the California 1849 Gold Rush.  Your goal is to find out what is was used for, how much was used, and what happened to it after it was used? 

Sample Search Strategy: 
Your search strategy might be to find some secondary sources (Wikipedia, histories of California) and get a quick overview.  
Then, you might drill down into primary sources to see what they said at the time.  (You might check newspapers sites for archival information about the Gold Rush, locating a bunch of resources.)  
You’re probably going to download them, then process carefully, looking for leads to other companies and people that were involved in importing, selling or using mercury. 
From that set of leads, you can expand your search to include specific archival searches for information about quicksilver companies in northern California, etc etc etc. 

That’s one thing about a strategy—you start with a more-or-less vague strategic plan that gets turned into tactical action over time.  In other words, your search tactics then implement your strategy. 

So… getting back to the point of this post, I originally asked “What search strategies do you use?”  And I got back a bunch of answers; many of which I would consider tactics.  Let’s look at what was posted…  (I’ve re-written much of what people actually posted for clarity.) 


1.  Scoping – limiting search to a particular kind/place/genre (example: using site: to limit)

2. Use left-side of Google search page to do specific filters (e.g., translated pages, image search using color)

3.  Use Google Video to search ALL of video (rather than just YouTube)

4. Use another search engine when stuck.  Be aware of other search engine capabilities (e.g., Alpha) and limits (IMDB, Twitter)

5. Know how to use synonyms in search.

6. Use Image search to find definition of unfamiliar terms  (e.g., [ polynya ] or [ planetary gear ] ) 

7. Imagine the way in which the answer to your question might be presented (chart? Infographic? Visualization? List? Album?).  Use those terms as “context terms” in your search. 

Strategies/Strategic knowledge:

1. When being literal isn’t working, try a more descriptive search (that is, use “context terms” to shift your search)  (example: searching for [ free books on kindle fire ] while on Amazon)

2. Know when to ask someone else for help.  (And have a developed social network of experts and people smarter than you.)

3. Recognize when you’re getting stuck in your search (e.g., when you’re getting the same results over and over). 

4. Speak aloud to articulate what you’re really looking for (aka, the Teddy Bear strategy)

5. Walk away and come back later. 

6.  Recognize that language changes over time and that searches for information in history might use very different terms for the same idea.   (Example: use Abyssinia instead of Ethiopia when searching pre-1920)

7. Vocabulary is important – if you’re having a tough time, then you’re probably going to have to expand your vocabulary!   (e.g., while looking to mount a chin-up bar, needed to find a widget to attach the pipe…. Figure out that’s call a “pipe flange” – go from there)

8.  Learn something new: For new search/research topics, plan on learning something along the way… new terms, new concepts. 

9.  Don’t give up after first 3 tries

10. Try different combinations of search terms

11. Be willing to recognize that you might be in the wrong place

12. Backtrack through references – If someone’s name keeps popping up, search for their original work

13. Identify the most unique searchable terms. Look for "individualistic" terms (that is, low frequency terms that are clearly on-topic). 

14. ALWAYS plan to double-check to find a second (or third) source for important facts

15. Start broad, learn a bit, then refine your search once you know the direction you want to go. 

16. Start with an overview article on the topic.  (Wikipedia is great for this.).  Follow links outward from there to other places you’ll want to go.

In posts ahead, we’ll dive into the details of these strategies (and maybe come up with few more)!


  1. Something I didn't see explicitly mentioned above is "Think like a content creator" though it's kind of implied by #7. What I mean by that though is try to imagine what someone writing on your subject would talk about and how they would express it. Sometimes that can lead you to search for completely different terms than the information you actually want because those terms may be more specific to the topic than the information you are actually looking for.

  2. One of the more powerful tools you can use.. is the the Tilde "~" operator before a google search -- This allows Google to serve results in bold - Using synonyms and Google own matching algorithm -- If I do a search for ~money Google will also use Currency, Financial & Cash in the results. (Highlighted in Bold)

    Sometimes you may not know the terminology or technical Jargon related to your search, but this is a solid technique I use to begin with.

  3. Dear Dan,
    my name is Sergej Zerr and I lead a group of students from L3S Research Center (Hannover, Germany) focused on web search. We would like to attend the Websearch classes you are giving this year. Unfortunately we cannot do this directly, since we are located in Europe. Would it be possible for you to offer remote classes? We would appreciate it a lot! If not, a video record would be nice as well and we could post our questions via e-mail, or blog.

    Thank you very much!
    Sergej Zerr
    email(_ATSIGN_ to be replaced by @): zerr_ATSIGN_L3S.de
    L3S Research Center, Leibniz University, Hannover, Germany