portal.htmbasic.htm → effective_searching.htm
Updated in MARCH 2009
      searching what's already behind them

The Golden rules of searching
"Effective searching"
(The following was originally developed as subset of a [conference] held in June 2006 at the canadian [Recon 2006] encounters)

The golden rules of searching

Quaerite et invenietis

There are some basic rules for seekers. Of course things are different depending from the KIND of search you are performing. Please note that specific and often different advice and techniques apply for [long term web searching] versus [short term web searching]. Also, [deep web] searching is another matter as well.

The following 'rules' represent a general synthesis, that should apply most of the times.

Almost every query can, and indeed should, be subdivided into five steps
think, find, refine, [evaluate], collate.
(Mnemo_acrostic: The Finder Reverses Every Corner)
  1. THINK about your query
    Seekers do not "plunge" into a search out of the blue. Like artists, they visualize the correct result before they begin. The 'perfect' answer is driving their queries. The perfect answer creates the correct question(s)
    What kind of results do you want? Books? Doctoral thesis? Images? News? Biographies? How many results do you want? Three hundred pages of material? One single authoritative book? A dozen pdf-articles? A short and concise essay?
    Obviously you cannot be an expert in all single field of any and every query you will launch. But you must be an expert in the field of finding the right resources for each and every kind of query.
    A seeker needs TWO skills: to formulate a question correctly and to know where to look. And this means knowing which resources you should use for your searches. And this means you must first of all know how to search those very resources you should use for your searches.
    In fact each 'part' of the web requires a different approach. For instance, searches on [usenet], on [blogs] or on [ftp servers] are not ruled by the same lore. Also each [kind of target], each quarry, requires a different approach: for instance when searching [news], [images] or [books].
    You must also decide if for a given query you will have to use [combing] techniques like [stalking], [luring] or [trolling] .
    Before even beginning, think about your query: prepare your question(s) for the perfect result and decide which resources you will use.

  2. FIND what you are looking for
    Easier said than done, I know. In fact this very complex step is at the same time the whole point of the exercise. However, depending on the previous "thinking about your query" step, you will at least already know where you should be looking for and what kind of techniques you'll have to use.
    A general advice is to [comb] as much as you can, i.e. use the knowledge that others have gathered. Search those that have already searched, and do not 'reinvent the wheel' at every query!
    A second generally useful advice is to go [regional] as much a you can, i.e. always use information and resources that are located on the same plane (geographically, temporally, academically, conceptually) as your quarry.
    Anyway, if your question has been formulated correctly and if you already know where to look, the 'finding' part will not be too hard. Still, you'll find a lot of "irrelevant" results, especially if you wanted more [recall than precision]. That's why "finding" a lot of stuff is not enough. The lore of refining, evaluating and collating these broad results is of outmost importance for the educated seeker.

  3. REFINE while searching
    Your queries are usually either too wide or too narrow. Usually -in fact- they are too wide. If a subject is too wide, as it is most of the time, you have to limit and narrow your search. Using boolean operators (AND and NOT or + and -) will narrow the search adding and/or eliminating terms. You can also limit your query temporally (for instance only 2005/2006), geographically (for instance only .ru) or formally (for instance only .pdf files).
    These limits allow you to restrict results to items meeting specific criteria. I.e.: a particular type (newspaper articles, journal articles, complete books, small snippets of text); a particular language (English, German, Spanish, Russian, Italian, French, etc.); a target published or produced within a particular time frame (2000-2004)

  4. EVALUATE your results
    This is easier said than done, again. The [evaluation phase] is of paramount importance, but -alas- far from being simple.
    Whatever you are looking for, you are bound to find very good quality results, good quality results, average quality results and poor quality (or no quality at all) results. This is not only due to the web-pervasive and omnipresent commercial spam, but also to the simple fact that the web allows anyone and his dog to publish anything he (or his dog) fancies.
    A possible approach to evaluation is to use as a rough guide the seven old classical questions: quis, quid, ubi, quibus auxiliis, cur, quomodo, quando: Who, What, Where, Helped by whom, Why, How and When.

    Well, first of all you should maybe ask yourself why the heck you need to search for something at all :-)
    Continue only if you have an answer to this fundamental question.

    If you manage to answer the fundamental question and continue, whenever you find a result, it is useful to ask yourself for evaluation purposes the whole bag of classic questions.
    (Does not take long and helps a lot :-)
    Let's begin: quis WHO is the Author (and therefore, given his biography, what qualifies him to write about the matter at hand); quid WHAT is in fact the result you found (a complete explanation, a proof of concept, a small addition, an hypothetical solution...); check ubi WHERE you did find your result (look at the URL, look at the server, look at the links pointing to it...); quibus auxiliis, WHO helped the Author? (look at who OWNS the server hosting the result, look at eventual references, links, etc...); and ask yourself cur: WHY the result has been produced and put on the web; quomodo HOW the result has been produced (again, similar to quid/what: years of research or one half-afternoon sudden jerk?); and finally quando: WHEN was the result produced/published/updated, when was the web site created/updated. (in fact [archive.org] may prove [invaluable for any kind of dating purposes]. Note that you can also retrieve a site for [specific date] of the past).

    Simply answering the seven "classical" questions will already allow you to proceed towards a proper evaluation of a set of results.

    Finally a word about those "ready-made" evaluation tips you can find on the web. Should you use them? Yep, Cum grano salis.
    First of all there's a tendency to ignore "grey areas" of the web when evaluating targets. Some self-appointed "evaluators" for instance seem to believe that a pdf file should automagically, eo ipso, be more worthy than an html file, independently from its actual content.
    No way! A text is not worth anything just because it has been printed and published in a book. Its worthiness must always be judged only anhand its [intrinsic] value. Many ready-made 'evaluations tips' you can find on the web are blinded by formal frills, bells and whistles and tend to bow with excessive bias towards the rather limited 'academical' web-subset. What's worse: many 'evaluators' are often utterly incapable of judging the content they encounter at face value, i.e. behind the formal aspect.

    This IS indeed a major problem: some of the most interesting lore on the web, some of the most advanced internet techniques are discussed and developed in small circles of geeks located all over the world that may, or may not, know english well enough to satisfy an 'evaluation purist' and that -in any case- will not always use a clean (nor a politically correct) english.

    It may also be worth noting that -in general- east european places (.ru, .bg, .cz etc.) are still less commercially oriented -for cultural and historical reasons- and therefore offer a more "sound" valid evaluation habitat, for books, software, products and targets, than the bogus [fanbois] "evaluations" recensions that are purposely planted on all amazon- or ebay-style places. In fact on our "euroamerican" slice of the web you can nowadays hardly find a non-paid (sorry: I mean non-biased :-) review or comparison of such targets.

  5. COLLATE your results
    Ok, you have performed a long search. Gathered tons of results. Painstakingly weeded out bogus and crap sites, understood which are the most important, the 'authoritative' results... and now you might stop your search and sleep satisfied.
    Nope. This would be a serious mistake: a web-query is not finished when you have found your results. Most will be lost if you don't COLLATE your results, squeezing the most authoritative results into a coherent and valid interpretation. A 'conclusion' of sort.
    Systematic record keeping is OF PARAMOUNT IMPORTANCE when searching. A classical mistake is to 'forget' to keep records during complex searches.
    For this purpose I suggest you simply use the NOTE function in [Opera] : just highlight the target text you are interested in, rightclick, and then choose copy to note (or use the keyboard shortcuts, either CTRL+SHIFT+C or CTRL+ALT+E depending on the version of Opera you'r using): *the URL* of the page you'r viewing at that moment *and the date* will be automatically stored in your note *together with the highlighted text*.
    You may want to create ad hoc note folders (for instance "books_abot_assembly_MAY_2006") and, at the end of your search, before switching the computer off and sleep, just move all your related notes inside some correctly named folders.
    Opera's Notes are just text format, very easy to edit, cat, search or prune.
    Alternatively use something to take notes, even a pen and a sheet of paper will do. DO NOT rely on your memory alone (or on your extraordinary seeking capabilities to re-find at once what you may have lost :-)
    If you do, you will regret it. Sooner than you believe.

    Once you create some crumbs-paths of well kept records, collating the results will be a quick and easy process.

  6. A final note about our "searching environment"
    Listening to music while searching is NOT a good idea, chatting while searching is NOT a good idea, being interrupted while refining a query is also unhelpful.
    Always search & seek in a quiet and relaxed environment, with as few disturbances as possible. No disturbing music, no telephone, no skype, no email distractions, no IRC, no chat (and of course no TV, duh).
    A serene, calm atmosphere, will allow you to take full advantage of your seeking efforts in an optimal way.
    Serenity CREATES serendipity.
    This does not have to mean soberness, austerity or ascetics, though. If you fancy something to drink, have it ready before starting, and always chose excellent wines, superb (i.e. belgian) beers or the most finest teas.

    Let's cut it short: Seekers should -maybe- paragon themselves to monks of the early middle age, sitting in their peaceful cells, seeking old forgotten knowledge, sipping good wines, while all those barbarians and zombies are burning everything in sight -and torturing each other- not far from our virtual abbeys' walls...

    ...yep: consider yourself a literate monk of the early middle ages among dangerous savage (and braindamaged) barbarians because this is exactly what you are, both on the commercially polluted web and in your commercially polluted real life.

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