Searching strategically

Image cc copyright Flickr user Bindaas Madhavi:

Hock (2004) asserts that “there is no right or wrong way to search the Internet. If you find what you need and find it quickly, your search strategy is good.”  This statement is true but makes one major assumption: that you have a search strategy already.  Easily as important as the tools you use to perform your online and print searches is the method used for organizing and performing these searches.  Search strategies can reduce the time spent searching by helping identify the most appropriate resources to search and the most efficient methods to use.

What is Your Question?

According to a survey by, individuals perform searches for one of three reasons: to find an answer to a precise question, without unnecessary additional information and as quickly as possible; to become educated and learn as much as possible about a single topic, so as to gain multiple perspectives and insight to all sides of the matter; and to browse for ideas and become inspired.

Members of the first group of searchers are kin to those who arrive at a traditional library reference desk with directional questions (“Where is the bathroom?” or “Where is the nearest post office?”, for instance) or ready-reference questions (such as “What is the population of Iceland?” or “How tall is the world’s tallest building?”).  These searchers know exactly what they want and need and sometimes even know already where to go for their information — Google and Wikipedia, for example, are popular starting places for such queries.

However, finding answers to satisfy the second and third categories of users requires a different approach — a search strategy.  Search strategies will forever in my mind be tied to Marchionini and his publication Information Seeking in Electronic Environments (1997), particularly chapter 5, required reading for students in courses on online searching and reference services; the names of the different approaches were so easy to visualize as to be almost unforgettable — “building blocks”, “successive fractions”, “pearl-growing”, and “interactive scanning”.

What is Your Strategy of Choice?

One of the more widely used methods of searching, the”building blocks” approach is popular because it breaks down complex questions down into manageable parts.  A proponent of this method develops concept “blocks” and links these together to form a search query.

“Successive fractions”, which is particularly useful for finding answers to vague or broad questions, requires a user to perform a search, then sift through and analyze the results to narrow the question’s scope and determine how to proceed.

With the “pearl-growing” method, whose name helped the approach stick in my mind long after I forgot what exactly it entailed, a user starts with one document and, based on the characteristics of this document, develops a list of keywords, search terms, and concepts with which to expand the search.

“Interactive scanning” was my least favourite approach as a searcher because it requires starting with a comprehensive collection of information and then, through reviewing each piece in the collection, gaining a better understanding of the subject and developing new queries to use to further the search.

What is the Next Step?

Regardless of the approach a user takes, there are three fundamental requirements for any successful search:

1. Know exactly what your question is.

2. Identify and use the most appropriate tool for the search.

3. Choose the search strategy with which you are most comfortable and/or which is the most likely to help you find the answer to your question.

With these three matters addressed, boot up that computer or grab those books and get searching!

Hock, R. (2004) The Extreme Searcher’s Internet Handbook. Medford, NJ :  CyberAge Books, p. 10.

Marchionini, G. (1997) Information Seeking in Electronic Environments. Cambridge : Cambridge University Press.


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