How to use search engines effectively: Google and beyond

On this page:

How to use search engines, including Google, effectively

Anyone can type a couple of words into a search engine and get lots of results, but are they necessarily the best results?  This page aims to help you get the most out of search engines.  It also has a section about the limitations of search engines, entitled Why you must go beyond Google!

Initial search

It is important before starting a search to stop and sort out in your own mind what sort of information you actually want.  Jot down a definition of your research topic, and make it as succinct as possible.  Decide what sort of information you require and, at the same time, what sort of information you don’t want!. 

  • Choosing and combining search terms - general advice
  • How to search on Google - a Google help page where you can learn a few tips and tricks to help you easily find information. Other help pages cover Search operators, Find free-to-use images, Filter your search results, Advanced Search, and the Google search results page

Hold on though, is the Google web search the best option for this search anyhow?  Or should I be using:

  • Google Scholar - provides a simple way to broadly search for scholarly literature, though it has limitations (see below)
  • Google Directory - this is no longer available and Google recommends its Web search instead.  If you prefer to browse the web by topic arranged in categories, you could try the Open Directory Project at
  • More Google options

These links focus on Google, but you should be able to find similar help pages for any search engine. Links to many search engines and subject gateways are available in our Internet searching page.

After getting some results...

...examine them carefully and see if they are what you were hoping for.  Advice on evaluating search results is available; one key consideration is can you trust the information! If you are not happy with the results, don’t give up!  A successful search on the Internet will often take several tries. You can always refine your searches by adding new terms which spring to mind once you have seen your initial results; or you may choose to limit your results if you feel you have retrieved too many.

Always remember to look at the "Help" or "Search tips" pages offered by the particular search engine you are currently using.  Not all search engines operate in the same way, and you should never make assumptions. 

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Why you must go beyond Google

Search engines like Google can be a quick and easy way of finding information.  However, they have their limitations, especially if you aiming to do a systematic search of the literature of a subject. 

Some of the limitations of Google and other search engines:

  • information 'hidden' from search engines : many sources of academic information, including important journals, are hidden from search engines, and older references may be less likely to be on the web.
  • quality of information : search engines can lead you to incorrect information, or information at the wrong level.  Google Scholar is better in this respect, but still has the other limitations.
  • quantity of information : a particular journal article reference can turn up many times in a search engine results set, whereas in a database search it would only appear the once.
  • limited search options : keyword type searching is the main search facility on search engines.  Databases can offer additional options, including controlled vocabulary searching (using a thesaurus, subject headings) and citation / cited reference searching.  For some subjects, specialised search options may also be available, eg chemical structure searching on some chemistry databases.

Going beyond Google means not relying solely on search engines to find books, journals, cases and maps (and all the other resources that you might need to complete an assignment or report) on the Internet. To help you go beyond Google, you could use our Databases page to find and link to databases that academics and researchers use to locate the information they need.  These resources can save you time, help you focus your search (no more lists of results that are over 450,000 long), return information of a better quality, and make your search more comprehensive and systematic.

So the next time you need information, bear in mind the limitations of Google and other search engines, and consider using databases and other resources available through our Databases page.  Another page explains how you can go about evaluating databases and search engines.

If you want to find out more contact your Subject Librarian or a knowledgeable colleague.


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