Teaching Effective Search

  • Learn ways to think beyond search terms and think about words that will appear in your results
  • Learn how the terms you choose affect the formality of your results
  • Learn to recognize if your search results are based on use of politically galvanized language
The majority of the really advanced searchers I've ever spoken with describe the same practice; imagining ideal sources. Many expert searchers actually picture a source they reasonably think would have the information they seek. They see it in their mind's eye, and they read the words on the page to get ideas for search terms. They also look at the format, location, and even characteristics like color, and use what these each to determine where and how to find information.

Well, this technique is unquestionably very advanced in its full-blown form. There are a number of component skills students can learn, and we can help them slowly build up to the capacity for predictive imagining. Both of the questions we just dealt with, "What do I expect to see when I run this search?" And "What do I expect to see when I click this link?" draw on the practice of imagining sources. But imagining an ideal source is the essence of the third question. "When I find this answer, what do I expect it to look like?"

The most familiar aspect that you'll be reading for is Search Terms. Search Terms can be awfully tricky. We're now more or less accustomed to thinking about things in a generalized way. When we consider a topic, we immediately kind of summarize it up to its broadest terms in our mind and with all the metadata and the search engine optimization that goes on, that often works perfectly well or feels like it works to find what we want. But the general terms that we end up searching for, are not always used in the sources we want to find.

Consider the following passage: "The Giants swept the 2012 World Series even when the Tigers had the home-field advantage in the final two games. San Francisco stole the championship out of under Detroit's nose." What do you think that passage was about? Possibly, you thought it was about baseball. The word baseball doesn't appear anywhere in those sentences, but we do have words like Giants, Tigers, World Series, and then San Francisco and Detroit, which give us cues for what it's about. Now, here's what's interesting. I once talked with a newspaper librarian who helped to create the digital archive of the newspaper he worked for when it went online. And he said that one of the hardest things was that he discovered that sports articles almost never mention the name of the sport they're about, and that readers always pick up from context clues like Giants, Tigers, and World Series. So the question is, how can you find articles about baseball if you're searching for baseball, and the word baseball isn't included?

Remember how search tools work? They take the word you type in and look for pages that have that word. And while many open web search engines are more flexible in dealing with words, and if you do a search for "families", it might also look for "kids"; if you look for the word baseball, it's not necessarily going to diversify across all team names and all concepts associated with baseball. So, in fact, it's on you as the searcher to think through, "What words probably will appear on the page?" It's up to you as the searcher to think about what are words that are likely to appear on the page and to actually use those words in your search if, in fact, your more general term like baseball doesn't work.

There are a number of times we need to move beyond the words we originally think of to define our topic and find other words if we want to find all the evidence we're looking for. Sometimes, different disciplines use different terms. One of my students was extremely surprised to find that when she searched for drones, she got really different results than when she searched for unmanned aerial vehicles. Sometimes, you're going to want to use both terms, and sometimes one or the other is going to be more likely to bring back the kind of information you're looking for.

Additionally, there's the question of formal versus informal language. For example, when you're thinking about police, sometimes the word police will appear on a source, but I would argue that a lot of news reporting just uses the term officer. "The officers on the scene said so and so." They don't necessarily say the word 'police.' Some sources which are highly informal will use slang, either laudatory or derogatory to talk about police. And in fact, most government sources use the term "peace officer" — again, instead of the word police.

To a certain extent, the term that you choose to type into the search box is going to impact the formality of the results that you get. So, this is actually quite interesting if you're in a school that is still using Common Core. Because, in the case of Common Core, there are a number of standards that talk about raising student awareness of formal versus informal language. And this might be a great way for you to get a lesson about search into the classroom.

Another really important place to think about terminology and the variety of terms that we use to describe one particular concept is when we use politically galvanized language. For example, I had a student who was assigned research on illegal immigrants. When she tried searching for "illegal immigrants," she found the sources were quite broad and covered a much wider range of topics than she was looking for. She had troubles she said, cutting through the noise. Over time, she discovered the term "undocumented workers" and found that to be much more precise to her need.

She came to me after she subsequently realized that the sources she was seeing for the term "undocumented workers" all had a liberal slant. She wanted to know how to find the conservative sources about undocumented workers. We had to take a step back and look at possible terminology and ended up using terms like "birthright citizenship" and "anchor baby" to find the sources she was looking for. So, in this case, she had to use "undocumented workers" and "illegal immigrants" and for example, "birthright citizenship" to get a range of opinions and to look at various perspectives in order to deal with her topic appropriately. Each of these is times that it becomes really critical that we step away from the way we voiced a question to ourselves, and think about how the author is going to be voicing the response, and try to match that language with our searching. We also have to move beyond just keywords to consider other common factors.

For any given information need, there are going to be certain characteristics of, most of, or many of the sources that hold the information we're looking for. As I look at my ideal source in my mind's eye, I may ask other questions beyond just what words I see on the page in my mind, such as, "What kind of source is it? Is it a news article, or a map, or an interview?" "Can I look up in the corner, and can I see the name of the website or database on which it's posted?" I may ask myself if there's something distinctive about the format that I can use when I'm searching.
I find it helpful to give students a scratch paper and offer them a minute to sketch a website they see every day. They shouldn't worry about details but they should essentially create a wire frame. I share my lovely sketch with them as an example.

Later, as we're talking about what kinds of sources might be available for our project, I give them another piece of scratch paper and I ask them to sketch one of the sources we use prediction to identify together. I asked them to caption the pictures. I asked them to look in the upper left-hand corner and read the name of the site they're on and write it in their sketch. Generally speaking, students are able to pull together a fairly decent approximation of an existing source and it gives them a lot more fodder for deciding where to search and what to search for. All because they were able to imagine it in some detail first, and determine what would and what would not be there.
There is More Than One Way to Say That

In the days of print encyclopedias as the main source a student would use for research, varying viewpoints on a topic were right in front of you in a single entry. However, today there are endless amounts of information (and opinions!) available at the click of a mouse. Search results can vary based on the type of language that you use in your search terms. Incorporating this knowledge into your research lessons will help students become strong researchers. Review the SLC resources below and then complete the Reflect & Practice activity.



Looking at the use of formal vs. informal language in searches may help raise student awareness that there can be several ways to say the same thing—each way giving you different search results. To work this into your search lessons, review the resources above and then use page 6 in the Course Packet to create 3-4 search activities that will help your students understand how language affects search results.

Recognizing Bias in Search Results

Recognizing bias in results is a skill that students will need as they become researchers. It is important that students look at their results and are able to recognize if all the sources are skewed towards one particular viewpoint or group. Students need to have the skills to recognize biased results and how to adjust their search. Review the SLC resources below and then complete the Reflect & Practice activity.


Whiting, Jacquelyn. "My Bias Isn't the Only Obstacle to Comprehensive Research." School Library Connection Topic Page. https://schoollibraryconnection.com/Home/Display/2272671?topicCenterId=2247905&view=content.


How are you going to work with your students to help them recognize what biases may be showing up in their search results? After reviewing the resources above about bias and what you've learned in this lesson, use page 7 in the Course Packet to create some examples to show your students how their search term choice may affect their search results. Start by searching using some of the examples talked about in this lesson and a few from recent topics that could result in biased results and try to alter the bias by using alternative search terms.

Additional Resources


About the Presenter

Tasha Bergson-Michelson is the Instructional and Programming Librarian for Castilleja School in Palo Alto, CA. Since 1995, she has been exploring what makes for successful information literacy instruction in corporate, non-profit, subscription, and school libraries, and through after school programs and summer camps. Previously, Bergson-Michelson was the Search Educator at Google, where she wrote an extensive series of Search Education lesson plans, the Power Searching MOOCs, and—most importantly—collaborated with other librarians around the world to explore the most effective ways of teaching research skills. Bergson-Michelson was designated a 2014 Mover & Shaker—Tech Leader by Library Journal.

MLA Citation

Bergson-Michelson, Tasha. "Imagining Ideal Sources [8:31]." ABC-CLIO Solutions, ABC-CLIO, 2022, educatorsupport.abc-clio.com/TopicCenter/Course/2131948?productId=2002&topicCenterId=2257524&subId=2279773&childId=2131952. Accessed 4 Oct. 2022.

View all citation styles.

Back to Top