Teaching Effective Search

  • Learn how to use operators to indicate relationships among search terms
  • Learn the relationship between operators and stepping stones in finding search terms
  • Learn to use operators contextually to find patterns within your search
So so far we've talked about two types of search terms, keywords about a topic, and context terms. Operators and other search features are a more traditional part of our life as researchers, but they can be used in increasingly flexible ways. Operators, of course, include Boolean operators like 'and', 'or', and 'not', that librarians have long made use of. Those operators indicate relationships among search terms. There are other commands that indicate how a search tool should interpret a specific search term. For example, where it should appear in a document.

Both in databases and in search engines, there are operators that allow us to say that a term should appear in the title or the text or the abstract or somewhere else within a particular source. Interestingly, students can get really excited about these operators but also have a fairly difficult time learning to use them in practice, especially the commands, and there are really quite a few of them in search engines that are really helpful. If we just tell them you can use this one or that one, there's not really the connection to practical use that students need. Also, I'm not entirely sure that scavenger hunts create that authentic usefulness that we need them to have either.

It's most helpful to use operators in a particular context and visualizing sources of context that gives a lot of meaning to how operators work. Let's revisit the example from several lessons ago, where a student of mine was looking for demographic information on who got tuition assistance from the Australian Government. We had thought about the fact that the information would probably be in a table. Once I identify that the information is going to be in a table format, the question becomes, "How can I actually find that? How can I make that happen?" Well, most search engines actually have an operator file type, that allows me to specify a type of file and most governments turn out their tables in Excel spreadsheet format.

So, when I'm thinking about a type of search that I can run to find something that's in a table format, I always try filetype:xls as part of my search. Additionally, I was thinking that I needed a document that came from Australia, was about Australia, but probably didn't have the word Australia on it. So, I had to think about how I could tell my search tool to specifically look at sites from Australian sources. It happens that Australian government sources are on a gov.au format in the url. So I can use the site operator that almost all search engines have and do an element in my search that is site:gov.au. So, my search starts out filetype:xls site:gov.au, and then I can add my topic search terms. In this case, maybe student tuition and males and females, because that was the demographic terminology that I was pretty sure was going to show up on a spreadsheet that had the information the student was searching for.

As it happens, the search worked beautifully and kind of two lovely things happened. One, we found a spreadsheet that had the information that the student was looking for. Two, the title of the spreadsheet included the phrase 'vet fee-help', which the student recognized and she said, "You know, I've been seeing that before. It's come up a couple of times, so maybe I should look up what that is." And that turned out to be the name of the government assistance program.

So in this case, we visualized a source, we used operators that were available through most search engines to find the source that we imagined, and that source functioned as a stepping stone to make the student look at a term that turned out to be her most productive search term. It was kind of a win all around. In this way, learning operators actually pairs really well with practicing using stepping stones in order to find search terms. In both cases, there's this practice that's involved with noticing language and this practice with noticing elements of websites that operators can help us find, that is cyclical in nature.

The more we practice, the more we notice, and the more we notice, the easier it becomes to find sources that are out there. Sometimes, that can have really unexpected consequences. So, for example, there's this problem that many librarians have. It's a big joke. When students ask us for a book talking about the color of the cover. So you know, a student will come in and say, "What was that Winston Churchill book? You know, the purple one with the gold double headed eagle on the cover?" And this is a fine joke among librarians of all stripes because of course, we view that question as being essentially unanswerable.

But what's funny is when we start learning about search tools that are out there, we start realizing maybe it's not that it's unanswerable, it's just that we didn't have the tools before to answer it properly. Because now, in image search, I can do color filtering. So, in many of the search engines available on the open web, I can type in a search like Churchill book, so I have my topic search term and I have my context term, and I can run an image search, and then I can filter, for example, by purple — and boom! The book is right there and I can identify it for the student and for myself.

Learning to use operators contextually leads to noticing increasing numbers of patterns within things we're trying to do, and that leads to better searching. Once I had realized that I could use color filtering for book covers, I started thinking about all kinds of ways I could use it. I've used this in so many different ways. I can look at fossils and I can think about what kind of stone they're embedded in by changing the color. There are so many things I can do. I can even consider primary sources that were originally published on paper, I can often use white color filters to expose.

So, once I got the idea of how to use a particular feature in service of a particular need, that became cyclical and there were more and more questions that I could answer using that feature. So, once you get in the habit of using site: or color filtering or whatever operators and special features are offered by search engines and also databases, you'll find that you learn more about how information works. And naturally, it will give rise to being able to search more and more powerfully.
Using Operators to Refine Your Search

Librarians have long relied on operators in their searches to find the book that someone has one or two details about, but can't quite remember the name of. Using Boolean operators, like 'and', 'or', and 'not', helps to indicate relationships among search terms. In addition, using other operators like site:, intitle:, etc., allow your search results to be very specific and find what you're looking for. Review the SLC resources below and then complete the Reflect & Practice activity.



Teaching students to include operators in their search gives them endless searching power. A great starting point is to teach Boolean operators, allowing them to limit their search results. In this lesson, Bergson-Michelson goes back to the Australian government example and uses operators to help the student find what they are looking for. Using page 12 in the Course Packet (found in the Resources above), develop an activity based on that example for your students. Provide 1-2 sentences about a particular source and ask students to search using operators to find the information needed. Ideally, the context you provide them in the sentences will allow them to visualize what they are looking for—reinforcing the idea of visualizing what you expect to find in your search!

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. "Operators and Other Search Features [6:56]." ABC-CLIO Solutions, ABC-CLIO, 2022, educatorsupport.abc-clio.com/TopicCenter/Course/2131948?productId=2002&topicCenterId=2257524&subId=2279773&childId=2131955. Accessed 4 Oct. 2022.

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