Go Wild! Try a Wildcard
AbstractEverybody's favorite card in UNO® is the wildcard—why? Because it can stand for any card you want! Your computer uses the same idea. A wildcard on your computer can stand for anything you want when you search. Do this science project to find out if using wildcards to conduct a search can help you find more of what you're looking for.
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Sara Agee, Ph.D., Science Buddies
Sandra Slutz, Ph.D., Science Buddies
Find out whether wildcards help you get more results from a computer search.
When you search on a computer, you type in special words called search terms. Search terms are orders for the computer to find matches for what you want from a database. A computer database contains information, such as things that people can buy or books that students can check out. Search terms help find what you want in a database.
Sometimes search terms can have different spellings and ways they can be changed, such as adding a suffix. Instead of typing all of these possibilities, you can use wildcards as symbols to get the computer to look for all the spellings and changes to the search term. An (*), which is called an asterisk, is the most common wildcard symbol.
A search term can have a wildcard in any position that is normally a letter. The (*) acts as a substitute for any number of letters. It can appear in any position of a word, either at the beginning, middle, or end of a word. See Table 1 for examples. Databases often have different rules about using wildcards. Almost all databases allow wildcards in the middle of a search term (as in La*ra) or the end of a word (as in run*). However, not all databases allow wildcards at the beginning of a search term (as in *ball) or in between words (as in three * mice). You will have to experiment with the database you choose to see what is allowed and what is not.
|Search Term||Some Matches|
|run*||run, runner, runners, running|
|doll*||doll, dolls, dollhouse, dolly|
|rocket*||rocket, rockets, rocketry, rocketman, rocketeer|
|*ball||baseball, basketball, football|
|three * mice||three blind mice, three clever mice, three kind mice|
You can use wildcards as a way to retrieve more information when searching for something in a database. An example of a database is an online library catalog. For example, if you wanted to search for a book about females in history you could run two keyword searches, one for "women history" and the other for "woman history." However, it would be easier and faster to do a single search using a wildcard: "wom*n history." Similarly, a wildcard is useful if the search term can be spelled in different ways like color (American spelling) and colour (British spelling). In this case, you could search using "colo*r" to find entries with both spellings. Wildcards should collect more results faster.
In this science project, you will search for a topic using an online library catalog. By using wildcards in different places, you can test whether using a wildcard will get better results from your search.
Terms and Concepts
To do this science project, you should know what the following terms mean. Have an adult help you look them up in a dictionary, search the Internet, or take you to your local library to find out more!
- Search term
- What symbols are used as wildcards?
- Where can you place wildcards in a search term?
- What happens if you use a wildcard as the only search term in a database? (Hint: if you can't find the answer, try it yourself.)
- How can using wildcards get you better results for a search term?
Consult this website for more information about using wildcards during searches:
- University of Georgia, University Libraries. (n.d.) Database Search Tips: Truncation. Retrieved March 1, 2018.
This website offers help with creating graphs:
- National Center for Education Statistics. (n.d.). Create a Graph. Retrieved May 4, 2011.
Materials and Equipment
- Computerized library catalog, see Experimental Procedure for details
- Lab notebook
- Graph paper
Doing Wildcard Searches
- Use a computerized library catalog to conduct your science project. The library catalog is a database of all the materials (such as books, magazines, movies, and CDs) in the library.
- Your local public library probably has a computerized library catalog (rather than an old-fashioned card catalog with paper cards in a drawer). Check with your local library to see whether you can access it online from any computer or just from the computers at the library.
- If you do not have easy access to a local computerized library catalog, you can search the Peninsula Library System web catalog instead.
- Test the wildcard rules of the library catalog you are using. Find out where you can use wildcards in a search term.
- Choose some search terms. Try putting a wildcard first at the beginning of the term, then in the middle, and then at the end. Write the wildcard words in your lab notebook in a data table like Table 2. You can either use the ones provided in Table 1 and Table 2, or come up with your own.
- Try each of the wildcard search terms and see if it returns any results. If it does, then the wildcard works in that position in your library catalog. If the search doesn't give you any results, then the wildcard does not work in that position in your library catalog. Record your findings in your data table.
|Wildcard Position in Search Term||Search Term Tried
(Examples from Table 1)
|in between words||Three * mice|
- Once you know where you can use wildcards in your library catalog, you are ready to start experimenting. Decide on a topic to do your search. Choose something that is specific and that has multiple spellings, run/runner/running, women/woman, or color/colour.
- Choose your search terms. Choose terms with and without wildcards (for example, run, run*, runn*, runner, runner*, running, running*).
- Create a data table in your lab notebook, like Table 3, to record your data. Write your search terms in the table.
|Search Term Used||Wildcard Used?
|Number of Matches in Library Catalog||Did the Search Return What You Were Looking For?|
- Type each term into the keyword search box of the computerized library catalog, and click "search" to get your results. Note: some library catalogs may have a subject search option rather than a keyword search option; either one is fine for this science project.
- For each search term, record in your data table:
- The total number of matches the search term returned.
- Notes on whether or not the search term returned all the types of matches you wanted. To figure this out, scan the list of titles that matched. If there are several hundred matches, look at multiple pages of matches. Were there any unexpected matches that you weren't thinking the search would find? If so, note that too.
- Continue for each search term you can think of. Do as many different combinations of terms and wildcards that you can think of.
- Repeat steps 3–8 using two more topics. When you repeat your experiment with additional topics, you make sure that your conclusions are based on enough data. In the end you should have a total of three topics, each with many different searches.
Graphing the Data
- Make a bar graph of your data for each of the three topics. On the horizontal X-axis create a bar for each search term, with and without wildcards, that you tried. The height (Y-axis) of a bar should represent the number of matches that search term returned.
- You can make the bar graph by hand or use a website like Create a Graph to make the graph on the computer and print it.
- In the end, you will have three bar graphs, one for each topic.
- Examine your bar graphs. What was the effect of the wildcard? Did it retrieve fewer matches or more matches than using the complete spelling of a specific word?
- Look back at your notes. Did you get any irrelevant results (ones that didn't make sense to you) for any of your search terms? What can you conclude about wildcards? Are they useful in database searches or not?
Ask an Expert
- For another Science Buddies science project on using search engines, try Ready, Set, Search! Race to the Right Answer.
If you like this project, you might enjoy exploring these related careers: