Making the Most of the Internet
Peter Suber & Liffey Thorpe

Issue #3. April 29, 1998.
Bookmarking A Search

A collection of links to web pages on a certain subject can make our lives much easier. Most scholars know the major web indices, guides, meta-sites, webliographies, or link-farms in their areas of expertise. But few realize that these can be made on the fly with a good search engine and saved for future use with bookmark software.

Let's use Alta Vista as an example, although this technique will work with virtually any search engine. If you run an Alta Vista search on a topic important to your teaching or research, you will likely make use of its hits and then move on to other tasks. But before you move on, bookmark the page of hits. If you do, then you can rerun the search whenever you like. Clicking on your bookmark will not return the same page of hits you got the first time. It will return a new and up-to-date search on the same search-string.

Suppose you carefully craft a boolean search-string to give you (roughly) all and only the pages on a topic important to you. (For a boolean search, you'll need Alta Vista's advanced search page.) How could you run this search again in the future? You could memorize the search-string and retype it into your favorite search engine. You could record the string and paste it into the search box. Or you could bookmark the search and click it. The third method is clearly the easiest, fastest, and least error-prone.

This technique has many uses. Rerunning the same search periodically can measure how the web is expanding on the topic of your choice and acquaint you with new sites on the topic. If you bookmark the same search on two or more search engines, you can measure which one is more comprehensive on the topic (which might change from month to month) and which one sorts them into the most useful order.

If you search for links to one of your own pages, you can monitor how interest in it is spreading. You can get traffic reports from your ISP or a counter, but you can monitor links back to your page with a canned search that is one click away.

If you've run a canned search several times and think of a way to refine it, most search engines will display the search box with the active search-string on the page of hits. All you have to do is edit the search-string, run the refined search, and bookmark the result.

For the same reason, you don't have to record the search-string when you record the hit-page URL. You can always find the former from the latter. That frees you to give your bookmarks intelligible names like Nietzsche in general, Nietzsche syllabi, Nietzsche articles, Nietzsche and skepticism, Nietzsche and anthropology, and Nietzsche and post-modern quantum mechanics. (These links run actual Alta Vista searches. Click on one to see how the method works.)

Once you've seen the advantages of this technique, you'll want to fine-tune a dozen search scripts and bookmark each one. Don't let your bookmark software hold you back. Use a program that lets you store thousands of bookmarks, arrange them in hierarchies, and search for them by substring.

You needn't limit yourself to bookmarking useful searches. You can link to them from any of your web pages, as we did with the Nietzsche searches above. If you maintain a web page on a certain topic for your students or the general public, give them the benefit of your experience. Fine-tuning a search-string takes knowledge of the field, knowledge of boolean operators, and time for experimentation. Once you have refined some useful search-strings, link to them from your specialized pages and make life easier for your visitors and constituents.

Pages of links made by scholars are usually more useful than pages of links generated by search engines. They are shorter, contain fewer false positives, are usually annotated or at least grouped and organized, and show the effects of human judgment or peer review. But don't overlook the utility of link collections generated by software. Precisely because they do not use human judgment as a filter, they can be more up to date and more comprehensive than any human scholar. Or maybe no human scholar is tracking the web sites on your narrow or bizarre topic. Use the two methods to complement one another, just as a programmer will use cleverness when brute force would be inefficient and brute force when cleverness has reached its limits.

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Peter Suber, Department of Philosophy, Earlham College
A.L.P. Thorpe, Classics Department, Earlham College
Copyright © 1998, Peter Suber, A.L.P. Thorpe.