Finding the Information You Need: The Magic of Keywords

I have a friend at NASA who is terrified of the way I use a computer. He’s convinced I’m a member of the Borg collective because of the speed with which I find information on the internet. And while I like to tell him that “resistance is futile,” there’s really no big secret to finding things on Google or any other search engine.

It all comes down to keywords.

Life Before Google

In the dark ages before Google (that’d be all of 10 years ago), a lot of research was still done in “the stacks,” those long, quiet, dusty rows of library shelves filled with dead-tree things called books.

My introduction to in-depth searches of the library came in a college course on research methods, and it served as an excellent basis for researching in the digital age. (I’ll pause briefly to thank Dr. Franklin Court at Northern Illinois University for his most enjoyable education on this topic–he managed to make researching and, in a separate class, Charles Dickens interesting and worthwhile–two things I would not have believed possible.)

Why on Earth would anyone subject themselves to the Reader’s Guide to Periodical Literature? To write papers, of course. You get a notion for providing a new insight into, say, J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Silmarillion. You read some passages that reminded you a great deal of John Milton’s Paradise Lost. You want to write a paper to prove that yes, in fact, Milton served as one of the sources of Tolkien’s back story to The Lord of the Rings. How do you go about such a preposterous quest? Aside from the usual reading of the two works themselves, you have to look for what critics might have said about the two works. Does anyone else have the same theory you did? Some Ph.D. who’s already published? Maybe. But how do you prove it?

You look for keywords. You’re not going to find full-sentence references in the index that magically answer your question: “Yes indeed, third-year college student: here’s how The Silmarillion borrowed from Milton’s Paradise Lost!” Instead, you have to look for shorter subjects: you go into a critical edition of Paradise Lost and see if you can find individual words in that book that match words you’re trying to write.

Before there was “Googling,” there was indexing. That’s a skill that still exists, but is often taken for granted by people unaccustomed to textbooks: someone takes the time to read a text and identify specific topics within the text so that the reader might find them more quickly. What indexing is doing is identifying the most important words related to a topic you’re studying. You find a lot of those words in the chapter names, headings, and subheadings of your basic classroom textbook. Indexes are ways of providing you with a mental map to other fields of knowledge. If you use the right “magic words,” you can cut down your search times considerably.

Keywords are all about concepts and context. Rather than look for specific terms, you’re sometimes better off thinking descriptive. You’re not going to find Lucifer (later Satan) in The Silmarillion any more than you’ll find Morgoth (previously Melkor) in Paradise Lost. But you will find the concept of the “fallen angel.”

Today, if you do a Google search, you’ll get 649,000 results. In the paper-based world, there might have been that many sources, but you wouldn’t find or want all of them; plus, you only had a week to research and write the paper. So then I have to narrow down my search a bit by looking for other keywords: power, kingdom, hell, et cetera. As I dig through the critical texts, I’m able to sort the wheat from the chaff and find which sources include more common elements than others. This connecting of keyword “dots” is essentially what search engines are doing.

Today, of course you can throw all those keywords into Google and find a paper by one Zach Watkins covering this very territory. Nicely done, Zach. And lucky you: you got to do it the easy way.

[Note to Students: I learned later that Tolkien hated literature written after 1500, so my paper was probably a bunch of drivel. But what the heck, I had enough coherent sources and made a convincing argument, so I got the A.]

Searches in the Real World

Okay, I used my college paper example as a fun way to work through the paper-based logic of keywords. In reality, you need specific images or sources that back up something you’re saying for a research report. The important thing to do when narrowing your search is to focus on the nouns. Let’s say you want to find out what percentage of the federal budget is spent on healthcare.

I’ve already provided you the keywords you need: percent federal budget healthcare.

Or say you want to find a video with a particular quotation that you like. You can go to YouTube (a decent source for video clips, along with and others) and do your search from there. For instance, my sister was heading off to the dentist the other day to take care of my nephew’s tooth, which had been knocked out. I input “Dune the tooth” into YouTube’s search engine, and came up with this:

But let’s say you don’t know what you’re looking for. Again, it comes down to the nouns or concepts in your query. It really comes down, sometimes, to typing a single set of words that, when combined, would match the gist of your query. A friend of mine is convinced that “everything is on the internet.” He might be right. It might not make sense and you might not get the results you want, but the results you do obtain might help you clarify your quest.

And as you go forth, easily typing things on your computer, give silent thanks that you don’t–unless you’re in a college research methods class–have to create your own index or wander the stacks doing things “the hard way.”


About Bart Leahy

Freelance Technical Writer, Science Cheerleader Event & Membership Director, and an all-around nice guy. Here to help.
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