Ready, Set, Search! Race to the Right Answer
AbstractDo you or your parents ever use the Internet to get fast answers to all types of questions? Like what time does the amusement park open? How do you open a lemonade stand? When is the next Pixar movie coming out? Chances are, any question you can think to ask is answered somewhere on the Internet. But getting to the right answer can be hard! If you've ever used Google (or any other search engine) to try to answer a question, you've probably gotten back pages of results, none of which had the information you wanted. Well, you're just one science fair project away from discovering how to use search terms (words) to find the right answers!
Sara Agee, PhD, Science Buddies
In this science fair project, you will use different search terms for a similar subject in the Google search engine, and evaluate the results.
Do you or your parents ever use the Internet to find answers to questions? Well, whether you are researching the Queen of England for a school report, or settling a debate with your brother about the name of the evil witch in Disney's The Little Mermaid (its Ursula by the way), the information is probably just a click of the mouse away. All you have to do is type the search terms (or words) into Google (or any other search engine, but for this science fair project, we'll stick to Google) and presto! Up pop hundreds of web pages with information about your topic. But have you sometimes gotten way too many results that don't have the kind of information for which you are looking? Why is that? Doesn't Google know any better? Unfortunately, the answer is no.
Google is simply a computer program that searches for information, using an algorithm. An algorithm is like a formula, it is a set of instructions written for the computer in coded language that tells it what to do. Let's say you type in a search term in the Google search box, which could be a word or a phrase that you think best describes the information for which you're looking. You hit "Enter" and instantly, the Google algorithm is programmed to scan through digital information all over the Internet, looking for web pages that best match the search term(s) you typed in. By counting the number of matching search terms found on all of the pages on the Internet, it gives each page a score. The hits (or results) you see on your results page are the websites that got the highest scores from the Google algorithm, because they contained the search terms you entered in the search box.
So how can you get better search results? The answer is by typing in the right search terms. Because of the way the Google algorithm works, the only way that you can get better hits is to give the computer better, more-specific terms for which to search. Here are some of the strategies that you will test:
- Use a specific term.
- Use more than one term.
- Change the order of the terms.
- Use quotes to search for a complete phrase.
- Use a negative term.
You probably understand most of the strategies, but what's a negative term? Well, you can use a negative term to keep certain information out of your search that you know is not what you are looking for. A negative term is a word with a minus sign typed in front of it ( -term ). If I search for ( apple ), I keep getting information about Apple Computers, but I really want information about the fruit. I can try to use a negative term to help narrow my search ( apple -computer ). If I search for ( apple banana ) to find out more information about those fruits, I keep getting information about recipes using apples and bananas. I can try to use a negative term to help narrow my search ( apple banana -recipe ).
How will these tips help you search for more specific types of information? In this science fair project, you will measure the number of Google hits obtained by using each different strategy. Will these strategies increase or decrease the number of hits? Which strategy will work the best?
Terms and Concepts
To do this type science fair project, you should know what the following terms mean. Have an adult help you search the Internet, or take you to your local library to find out more!
- Search term
- Search engine
- Google hit
- Google search
- Google is the number one search engine these days. Learn the Google Search basics by reading through this tutorial:
Google Help Center. (2010). Google search basics: Basic search help. Retrieved March 30, 2010.
- This website offers help with creating graphs:
National Center for Education Statistics. (n.d.). Create a Graph. Retrieved March 30, 2010.
Materials and Equipment
- Computer with Internet connection
- Lab notebook
- Graph paper or printer
- First, familiarize yourself with Google and read the Google search basics: Basic search help page.
Think of a topic to search for, and make a list of possible terms that describe it. For example, if I want to research different kinds of fruit, my list would be:
Make a data table in your lab notebook in which to write down your results:
Search Term Number of Google Hits
- Go to the Google Home Page.
Choose search terms for your topic and type each one into the search box. You should try combinations of different terms and strategies. Here are some examples of search terms using the
"fruit" topic (the text that you would type in to the search engine is shown in parentheses—do not include the parentheses in your search):
- One non-specific term: ( fruit )
- One specific term: ( apple ) or ( banana )
- Two terms: ( apple banana ) or ( apple orange )
- Three terms: ( apple orange banana )
- Two terms with AND: ( apple and orange )
- Two terms with "___ AND ___": ( "apple and orange" )
- Use a negative term: ( apple -computer ) or ( apple banana -recipe )
- Try other combinations of terms you want to measure...
- Click the "Google Search" button. On the results page, look near the top of the page for number of hits and write the numbers in your data table. For example, there could be text that says something like "About 1,020,000,000 results (0.53 seconds)."
- Repeat for the other search terms you want to test, writing down the number of hits each time in your data table.
- Make a bar graph of your data, either on graph paper, or using a website like Create a Graph. Make a scale of the number of hits on the left side of the graph (y-axis). Draw a bar for each set of search terms up to the matching number of Google hits on your scale. Make sure that your scale is big enough to include all of your data by setting the biggest number (the maximum) above your largest piece of data.
- Which searches retrieved the largest amount of data? Which searches retrieved the smallest amount of data? How did that relate to the quality of the search? How do search terms without quotes ( A and B ) compare to search terms that are in quotes ( "A and B" )?
Ask an Expert
- Google is only one search engine for finding information on the Internet. Try a similar experiment with other search engines like Alta Vista, Lycos, Dog Pile, or Web Crawler. Do they use similar rules? Can you measure the number of hits? How do different search terms change the number of hits you get?
- Libraries use similar algorithms to help you search for books about certain topics. Go to your local library to use the computer catalog and search for a book on a specific topic. What types of search terms do they use? What types of tools does the library catalog use to make a search more specific? Look for the use of search terms like "AND" or "NOT", the use of fields like "KEYWORD" or "AUTHOR", or any other way that they make a search more specific. Measure the number of hits you get with different methods and compare.
- For another Science Buddies experiment about using search engines, try Wild About Wildcards.
If you like this project, you might enjoy exploring these related careers: