What Is an Online Search?

Jessica Ellis
Jessica Ellis

An online search is a quest for information through the Internet. There are many different ways to perform an online search, including by using large search engines, site-based searches, or asking questions in forums. An online search can be made much more effective by knowing some basic tricks and tips, including the use of quotation marks and plus or minus signs.

Many people resort to large web-based search engines for all of their online search needs.
Many people resort to large web-based search engines for all of their online search needs.

Many people resort to large web-based search engines for all of their online search needs. These mega-sites are enormous directories that bring up lists of website links in response to words entered by the user. Each search engine uses specific algorithms to determine how the list of results is ordered and put together. Generally, the most popular sites will come up near the top of the list, but searchers may need to dig through pages of results to find the specific answers they are seeking.

Each search engine use specific algorithms to determine the order of search results.
Each search engine use specific algorithms to determine the order of search results.

Site-specific searching can be a faster way to find desired objects, but requires the user to know which website to use initially. For instance, if a person is looking for a line of towels carried by a specific department store, he or she could go to the website of the store and enter the brand name in the search box. If there is no search box, the user might also be able to click on a category, such as “towels” or “bathroom supplies,” and manually search through the results. Though a site-specific online search does require a known point of origin, it can be a good way to weed out thousands of extraneous results.

Sometimes, search engines and site-searches fail to produce a definitive response to an online search. One of the best things about the Internet is that the pool of knowledge among users is enormous; sometimes, a user halfway around the world may have the answer being sought. Forum sites allow a user to post questions or pose theories that all other users can view; asking a question about ancient Greek mythology in a forum on a website dedicated to ancient Greek stories may be a good way to get an informed, concrete response. Forums tend to have etiquette requirements, and may require membership to access, making it important to read any posted rules or guidelines before utilizing this online search method.

When using a search engine for an online search, results may be refined by entering search terms correctly. Search engines are not really capable of contextualizing a specific query; instead, they tend to use statistics to find the highest correlation between the words in the search box and the matching content of a web page. Putting quotes around a specific phrase, such as “New Jersey lottery winners,” will prompt most search engines to only return results that show those four words in that specific order; without the quotes, any page that has those four words listed anywhere may be returned. Using a plus sign between words will make the engine return only results that include both words. Searching with a minus sign, such as “Sonnets -Shakespeare” will eliminate results pages that are about sonnets, but that include the the word “Shakespeare.”

Jessica Ellis
Jessica Ellis

With a B.A. in theater from UCLA and a graduate degree in screenwriting from the American Film Institute, Jessica is passionate about drama and film. She has many other interests, and enjoys learning and writing about a wide range of topics in her role as a wiseGEEK writer.

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Discussion Comments


@Ana1234 - I think they usually only put something under the public domain label if it is found on a government website (often government issued photos are public domain, but don't take that for granted either) or on another website that is specifically set up by a trusted authority to distribute that kind of image (for example, a museum might do this).

I have noticed that I've fallen into a trend of always searching by typing in a question, rather than using a string of words related to the topic and that seems to work better for some reason. So I'll type something like "how can I filter water at home?" and it will come up with the results I need better than just searching for "filter" and "water" and "home".

I guess that's because a lot of websites know people search like that and tend to arrange their articles so that they match a question.


@Mor - Just remember that Google is not infallible. It can only search for things that have been labeled properly. So if you want the latest research and it isn't online yet, you won't find it through the internet.

Or if you want art that doesn't have copyright attached you should investigate the source independently, because it might have just been stolen from elsewhere.


Don't forget that Google has a lot of different versions of their search engine to make it easier to find what you want. Like "Google Scholar" which will only search research papers. And of course you can just search for images or video or audio.

I will often use online search engines to find public domain images I can use in art without having to worry about copyright. Most of them will have an option somewhere to narrow the search down so that you'll only find images that can be used commercially.

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