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Surfing with a purpose

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There are more than 100 million pages of information available on the Internet, and new resources are being added every day. In order to find relevant information you need some way of searching this vast network. A search engine does just that. The main ones are AltaVista, (www.altavista.digital.com), a very powerful research tool, and Yahoo! (www.yahoo.com). Specialist uk search engines include Searchuk (www.searchuk.com) and Cybersearchuk (www.cybersearch.co.uk). Learning how to use search engines is easy and probably one of the most useful skills you can develop.

The best way to learn is by example. Let's say your practice receives a brief to redesign a run-down street market as part of an urban-regeneration project. In responding to the brief, it would be a good idea to find out what's happening to street markets throughout the world, to learn how they can affect urban regeneration and to come up with some good examples of successful markets. This is just the sort of task a search engine can tackle very effectively. (This example is based on an actual project with Mary Rogers and Associates.)

But doing a search on the words 'street market information research' produces millions of results. AltaVista deals with the search by treating it as a series of individual words. Therefore it will search for all the documents with 'street' in them, all the documents with 'market', all the documents with 'information' and all the documents with 'research'; then it will rank the results and return you a list in batches of ten. This is an inefficient search. Its usefulness can be greatly improved by using just two simple search tools - quotation marks and + signs in the search box.

Include a + sign

This tells the search engine that all the results must contain any word with a plus sign directly in front of it (no space between + and the word). Therefore a search on +street +market +information +research will return only documents that contain all four words. This search cuts the number of returns to 140,000 - still too many. A quick look at the results will show that the word 'market' is throwing up results on stocks and marketing companies, but what we are after is 'street market': so we can use quotation marks to specify that.

Use quotation marks

Quotation marks tell the search engine to look for the complete phrase within the marks, not for the individual words. So a search on 'street market' will look for this complete phrase. Combine these two features and you have a very powerful search tool. The search +'street market' +information +research is now much more efficient and returns a manageable 389 results. The first of these throws up a street-market super site - that is, a site with lots of links to information on street markets - the work has been done for us!

Read search tips provided by the search engines. Most have useful information that will greatly enhance the effectiveness of your searches.

Plan your search. Write down specific questions you'd like the answers to and a list of as many key words as possible.

Look out for supersites. These are one of the most useful aspects of the web. Generally some enthusiast or organisation will have spent a lot of effort researching all the resources available on a particular topic. Such sites can be amazing sources of detail and the beauty is that someone else has done all the hard work for you.

Go beyond the first page of results, something many people do not do. But you can often find exactly what you are looking for deeper in - when doing my own searches I will always go to four to six pages of search results.

Check out sources. Just because you find it published on the web doesn't mean it's true. Remember, the web is so open, information is not controlled or checked. It is always a good idea to check detail and sources for veracity.

Look out for serendipity, 'the faculty of making chance discoveries of pleasing and valuable things'. Search engines can often throw up unusual results and these can be very useful, particularly in leading you in a direction you have not thought of before - keep an eye out for such opportunities.

If your search has been successful, bookmark it - it's not just individual sites that can be bookmarked. This means that you can come back time and again to the same research results.

Print out copies of informative documents and file them away for easy reference. Make sure that you use 'Page Setup' in your browser to print the url and date of printing on any document you print out.

Follow up. Contact people and organisations you identify in your searches. Drop them an e-mail, phone or send them a letter - the Internet is a marvellous way of entering a dialogue with people who can help you.

All the searches found useful documents on street markets throughout the world. But by far the most useful result was finding the super site, Open air Market. Here, we found a good collection of case studies, reports, even excerpts from books: an hour or two spent looking through the resources on this site would be time very well spent.

The ability to source such comprehensive information in a short period of time could make all the difference between winning orlosing the contract. If you want to learn more about using search engines, you'll find an excellent on-line guide at www.purefiction.com/ pages/res1.htm.

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