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Searching the Internet:  An Introduction

James W. Drisko, PhD, LICSW

The World Wide Web (or "the Web") is vast set of publicly-accessible documents, graphics and video files located on many different computer systems around the world. As of April 29, 2001 there were over 35,000,000 named Web sites existed worldwide -- over 20,000,000 more than last year! (NetNames, 2001).  Each of these sites can include several individual users and an almost unlimited number of documents.

What you typically find on the Web are hypertext documents.  Hyptertext documents contain both information and active links to additional, related documents or resources. The active links are identified by the specific colors or underlining or changes in the "look" of the cursor as you move over an image. Most often the cursor changes from an arrow to a pointing finger.

Hypertext documents are stored as digital files on computers called servers. Servers send these files to the user's computer upon request. A browser is a software application which decodes and displays hypertext files on a computer. The main task of a browser is to display web pages. The most common browsers are Netscape's Navigator and Microsoft's Explorer. However, other browsers exist, such as Opera Software's fast and small Opera, and NSCA's Mosaic, the original Web browser. Browsers perform several tasks: they display Web pages, allow quick movement among different Web pages, and provide a list of icons or buttons which allow common tasks to be performed quickly.

To request specific information on the World Wide Web, the user must type in a Web site address or mouse click on a marked hyperlink. Web sites each have a specific address or URL (Universal Resource Locator). Each URL has three elements: a protocol tag, a server name, and a directory path. For example, http://www.smith.edu/ssw/index.htm is the URL for the Smith server as smith.edu (standing for Smith College, a educational organization). Other names include .com for commercial sites and .org for noncommercial organizations like NASW.) The third element "/ssw" is the directory location of the file being displayed. The name of the page file is index.htm Most browsers have a prominent space for entering URLs. After entering the URL, pushing the Enter key or clicking a "Go" button or double clicking on the mouse to start the process of getting the file for display.

Almost all Web pages include active hyperlinks. Clicking on an active hyperlink name (or spot on a graphic) moves the browser to the hyperlink's own location. This allows the user to select where to move and how to move among pages. There is no standard linear flow as there is among pages in a book. The result is a user-defined experience which can quickly move the user away from the original location.

Browsers offer other ways to move among Web pages, such as shortcut icons or buttons. Once the user has viewed a number of pages, a click on an icon will move "Back" to a previous page or "Forward" to the next page. Clicking on "Home" returns the user to the starting location. Drop down menus also allow recall of pages already visited. The dropdown menu is activated by clicking on the small down arrow to the right of the URL.

Another key feature is the ability to "bookmark" an interesting URL. The browser keeps the URL address for all bookmarked pages. By clicking on the icon for "Bookmarks" (or "Favorites" ) a list of the titles of previously visited pages appears. The user can then click on a bookmarked URL and immediately visit it. This feature is vital to using the World Wide Web for research.

Search Engines

Browsers frequently offer installed links to Internet search sites. These sites, also called search engines, find Web pages which include content the user choices. Some major search sites are Google, AltaVista, Yahoo, and Lycos. Search sites fall into two broad categories: Keyword search engines and subject directories. The differences are now slight, but understanding them can be helpful in on-line research.

A search engine is roughly equivalent to the card catalog in a library. A search engine looks for keywords the user specifies in Web documents or in invisible content tags authors include on most Web pages. Since the content on the World Wide Web changes daily, search engines help locate current material and correct out-of-date links. The actual search is performed by a software "robots" or "spiders." These robots search large fractions of the World Wide Web and can generate enormous numbers of files to explore. (They actually seek and retrieve the terms you requested in the content or headings of public web pages.) Widely used search engines are:
Alta Vista (www.altavista.com), Google (www.google.com), HotBot (www.hotbot.com), and Alltheweb (www.alltheweb.com).

In contrast, subject directories organize Web resources into broad topic areas. These topic area are further divided into smaller, more focused, subcategories. The subjects are selected by human beings, who use their judgment regarding which sites and files belong in a given area. The size of the databases for subject directories is smaller than for search engines, so the number of "finds" or "hits" is typically smaller too. However, the human judgement may lead to more relevant and useful hits than does a robot search engine. Widely used subject directories include Yahoo! (www.yahoo.com), InfoSeek (www.infoseek.com), and Excite (www.excite.com).

About.com is a topic resource.  Each area is organized by a human guide (author) who generates information about their topic of expertise.

Choosing Among Search Sites

First, identify the key topics and concepts you wish to study. This piece of thinking is the researcher's responsibility. Subject directories are a good place to start on a search of a broad topic. They will very likely generate a wide range of views, activities and resources on the topic. This can help stretch the imagination and extend knowledge. Subject directories can help identify keywords and synonyms for more specific searchers to follow. On the other hand, to find a very specific type of information, a search engine may be more effective. This assumes the researcher is quite familiar with relevant keywords and ideally can identify some terms or keywords to be excluded.

In a simple search, the user enters a word or phrase and clicks on the engine's "Go" button. Results appear quickly in a rough hierarchical order. Sometimes a numerical percentage marks the likelihood of success. Often thousands of "hits" appear. Unless the first entries are useful, a more refined search may be needed.

Searches may be limited by specifying a range of years or specifying the language of resources to be found. Search engines can use Boolean logic to focus their searches. For example, the user may enter the terms "research, social work." This search would find only those Web resources which include information on both: "research AND social work". To search for research not including social work, the user would enter: "research NOT social work". To include all resources including either research or social work, the user would enter: "research OR social work". Some search engines are sensitive to the order in which these Boolean operators are entered, so consultation with a search specialist or reference librarian will be helpful.

Web Search Tips:

Try out one or two search sites in each category to get a feel for features and ease of use. There is a wide range of preferences among long-time users that appears to be based on a mix of successful "hits" and ease of use. Look for ease of entering simple and advanced searches, speed of results, number of relevant hits returned and the extent of information included with each URL. Remember, many hits will be irrelevant and some will not be available when you try them (known as a "dead" site or 404). Be sure to bookmark all useful finds. This will mean learning to edit your bookmark list, but saving links is vital to retrieving valuable information later. Be sure to keep all the information about a site needed to report its URL in the format of the report you will write. For example, the American Psychological Association requires dates to access (as some sites and files disappear over time). Search early in the day to avoid web slowdowns. Get to know your Web browser. They include a many features and shortcuts that can be helpful to the researcher.

Useful Web Sites for Social Work and Human Services:

The major human services professional organizations have Web sites. Each of these professional organizations also offers links to additional professional resources and organizations.

The National Office of the National Association of Social Workers has an informative site with links to some State NASW offices. The NASW web site also has information that may be of use to clients as well as general information about social work. http://www.naswdc.org

The American Psychological Association has an extensive site with links to professional and clinical issues. The site also offers information about citing World Wide Web materials in published articles and books. http://www.apa.org

The American Association for Marital and Family Therapy offers information for members and on a range of clinical issues. http://aamft.org

The Society for Social Work and Research has a site with information about the organization, its conference, and application materials. http://www.sswr.org/

The accrediting organization for baccalaureate and masters level social work programs, the Council on Social Work Education lists all accredited programs and offers information and links about its programs and Annual Program Meeting. http://www.cswe.org

The Clinical Social Work Federation has a web sites with considerable information related to clinical practice and advocacy for psychotherapy. http://www.webcom.com/nfscsw

The American Association of State Social Work Boards offers detailed information on social work licensure/certification standards and processes for each state, including mailing addresses for each state board. The site also offers useful consumer information. http://www.aasswb.org

The American Board of Examiners in Clinical Social Work has a site giving information on its certification and "Excellence in Preparation for Clinical Social Work Practice" award for second year social work students. http://www.abecsw.org

Other Resource Sites:

The best developed social work web site (and most widely visited) is World Wide Web Resources for Social Workers offers a wide range of social work links, organized by category. This sites was developed by Gary Holden of the Shirley M. Ehrenkranz School of Social Work.
http://www.nyu.edu/socialwork/wwwrsw/

James Drisko organized the Social Work Resources with attention to clinical social work concerns, as well as links on research and human diversity issues. http://www.drisko.net

Smith College Libraries offer a great starting point for social work research. http://www.smith.edu/libraries/subject/sswhome.htm

SWAN, the Social Work Access Network. It offers a range of resources and further links. SWAN is maintained by the University of South Carolina's College of Social Work. http://www.sc.edu/swan

REFERENCE

NetNames, Ltd. (2001). Total domains registered worldwide. Retrieved April 29. 2001 from the World Wide Web: http://www.netnames.com/

James W. Drisko October, 1998, updated May, 2001)


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