Internet Research 

by Adele Enright, Rio Hondo College


  1. The Nature of Internet Research
  2. The Basics of  Internet Research
  3. How to Develop an Internet Research Assignment
  4. Sample Internet Research Assignments
  5. Additional Resources
  6. Sources Used


Internet research has changed the ways to search for information.  Much more information is available in a wide variety of formats from an Internet-capable desktop computer.  There is information and material available that includes but is not limited to:

  • College information
  • Sound
  • Images
  • Periodical articles
  • Government publications
  • Original content from individuals or organizations
  • Library catalogs
  • Subject guides
  • Online courses

The Internet has been described as a vast library. Yes, the Internet is vast, but it is only a library in the loosest sense of the word: a collection of items.  The Internet differs from a library in that  librarians work to make library collections organized and easily accessible.  Librarians evaluate and acquire authoritative materials that are appropriate for library users. 

The Internet is made up of billions of Web pages that have been created by many people.  Web page authors range from authoritative experts, such as university researchers, to anyone with an opinion and time to create a Web page.  The Internet does not have a central catalog or index to its material.  Access is gained from a variety of tools that sometimes overlap in their coverage, but do not provide access to the entire Internet.  Information located on the Internet must be evaluated by the user.  There is no quality control function on the Internet.  Click here to read the article "10 Reasons Why the Internet Is No Substitute for a Library" .  With that said, the Internet is good source of information for the thoughtful and selective researcher.


After a topic has been selected, Internet research requires: Search strategy development, Search tool selection, and How to evaluate sources found on the Internet  

Internet research requires the researcher to maintain a spirit of adventure and willingness to revise and conduct a search several times with several different search tools until the desired results are obtained.

Determine Types of Information Needed 

A search strategy provides an effective and systematic approach to searching that yields relevant results.  To begin development of a search strategy, determine the types of information you want from the search.  For example you may want to retrieve websites, magazine articles, newspaper articles, peer-reviewed journal articles, books, etc.  Once you decide what types of information you want, you can choose your search tool.

It should be noted that sometimes information is available but is difficult to locate and can be found more quickly in a Reference book in the library.  Make sure your college librarian is a part of your research team.  Keep in mind that many, but not all reference books, are available on the Internet.  See "Reference Resources" at the Internet Public Library or the "Reference Desk"  at the Library Spot  for examples of reference books available on the Internet.  If you cannot locate information on the Internet, a call, visit, or e-mail to your college librarian is in order.

Identify Concepts/Keywords and Their Related Terms
In order to get relevant results from an Internet search you must identify the concepts and keywords and the related terms of your topic.  First, jot down your concepts/keywords.  Then develop several  related terms for your concepts/keywords.  To develop related terms use dictionaries, general or subject encyclopedias, thesauri, etc.  Many community colleges have a subscription to an online encyclopedia.  So be sure to check your college library's Web page for an encyclopedia or use the Internet Public Library or Library Spot for access to a online dictionary, encyclopedias, etc.  Keeping track of the terms used will save time searching.  See the sample below for the search strategy for the following topic: 

"How to prevent plagiarism by two-year college students"

Concepts/Keywords --->> Plagiarism  Prevention two-year college(s) students
related terms--->> Cheating stop(ping) community college young adults
related terms--->>   combat junior college  
Determine Search Features
Most search engines offer search features such as truncation, proximity operators, and Boolean operators.  Review the Help, FAQ, Search Tips, etc. pages of the search engine you have selected for an explanation of the features offered.  For an example, see the Google search engine's Help Central.

Search Tips
The following are some tips to make your Internet research more effective:

  • Make your search strategy simple
  • Consider using phrases and enclose them in quotes.  For example "community college students"
  • Remember that Internet research is interactive.  Review your results to modify your search strategy.  You may need to:
    • Expand your search 
    • Narrow your search
    • Use different terms for concepts/keywords or related terms
    • Identify or select additional search tools, sources, etc.
  • Use Boolean search operators (OR, AND, AND NOT) for complex topics.

Internet search tools include:  Web DirectoriesSearch EnginesMeta-Search Tools Subscription databases Virtual Libraries

There are two basic ways to locate information on the Internet:

  • Subject browsing
  • Keyword searching

Use subject browsing for general searches.  Subject browsing is available in Web directories and Virtual Libraries.  For more specific or complex searches use keyword searching.  Keyword searching, for specific and complex searches, is more efficient in search engines and  subscription databases (such as Ebscohost, ProQuest, etc.) that allow keyword searching.

Web Directories
For general searches and topic development, a Web Directory is a good starting place.  A Web Directory is an Internet search tool that allows the researcher to click on general topics and to proceed to more specific topics within the directory. Yahoo! is an example of a Web directory.  Web directories, or subject catalogs, are lists of selected Web pages that are arranged hierarchically.  That is, the subject categories are arranged from the broad to the specific.  Web directories are compiled by people who evaluate and select Web pages for inclusion in a Web directory.  Directories do not cover the entire Internet nor do they try.  

Many Internet search tools provide a Web directory and a search engine on the same Web page.  The Web directory part of the search tool is usually a subset of the entire search tool's database.  The Web sites listed in the Web Directory are often evaluated, annotated, and rated or ranked. Some Web directories offer keyword searching within the Web directory.  Listed below are some examples of Web directories:

Search Engines
Search engines are Internet search tools that contain databases of Internet resources such as public Web pages, image files, sound files, video files, etc.  Search engines gather resources for their databases through the use of computer programs known as "spiders" and "robots".  Search engines provide the researcher with keyword searching of their databases.  Major search engines attempt to index the entire Internet.  However, this  is nearly impossible.  At this time, no one search engine indexes the entire Internet.  Search engines provide the researcher with access to large amounts of information and provide the most comprehensive results.  When using a search engine it is best to develop very specific search statements (queries) by using specific phrases or concepts.  Use more than one search engine, since some Web resources may not be found in all search engines.  Listed below are some of the major search engines:

Each search engine tool provides online Help, FAQ (Frequently Asked Questions), or Searching instructions.  See HotBot's Help or Google's Help Central for examples of searching instructions offered by search engines.  A researcher can find searching tips as well as explanations and examples of the search terms, search techniques and concepts that include Boolean operator searching, phrase searching, relevance ranking, etc.

Meta-Search Tools
Meta, or comprehensive search tools, enable the researcher to use several search engines simultaneously or list search tools that can be accessed from the meta-search tool's Web site.  The two types of meta-search tools are called parallel (simultaneous search) and the all-in-one search tool (a list of search tools on one Web site).  The meta-search tool collects and displays the most relevant sites found by each search engine for a single search statement (query) submitted.  Some popular meta-search tools are:

Subscription Databases
Subscription databases, also called online databases or electronic databases, are provided by most California community college libraries for their campus communities.  You can expect your community college library to provide access to at least one or two subscription databases.  Many community college libraries offer a wide range of subscription databases.  The most popular type of subscription database is a full-text periodical database such as ProQuest, Ebscohost, or Lexis Academic Universe.  A full-text periodical database will provide access to complete articles from many magazine, scholarly journal, and newspaper titles.  In addition to full-text periodical databases, many community college libraries offer other subscription databases such as an online encyclopedia.   Most subscription databases contain
Help, Searching, Search Tips, etc., sections. Read these sections before you begin using a particular subscription database. Also note that many community college librarians offer workshops that teach the use of subscription databases for students, faculty, and staff.  It is important to take advantage of this service by contacting your community college librarian for information about using subscription databases provided by your community college library.

Virtual Libraries
Virtual libraries are a type of subject directory of Internet resources. Virtual libraries are compiled, organized, and annotated by librarians and other information specialists to provide a logical means of access to Internet resources. Virtual library resources are evaluated for their authority, appropriateness, currency, etc. The Internet Public Library, Infomine, and The Librarians Index to the Internet are good examples of virtual libraries. These virtual libraries and others are developed and maintained by librarians who have a commitment to locating and providing the researcher with the best resources the Internet has to offer. Some virtual libraries provide the researcher with Internet resources that are rated. The ratings are determined by librarians and other information specialists.  There are three main types of virtual libraries: subject guides, reference works, and specialized databases. Listed below is an example of each type of virtual library:

Type of Virtual Library Example
Subject Guide: Argus
Reference works: Internet Public Library
Specialized database: PubMed

Virtual libraries rely on librarians and other information specialists who select Internet resources bases on their excellence and value to their virtual library users. This is similar to what traditional brick and mortar librarians have done for many generations. Therefore virtual libraries are the best place to locate subject guides since these subject guides are maintained by people who are knowledgeable in the subject areas.

Why is it necessary to evaluate Internet resources? Because with the exception of information found in virtual libraries, the vast majority of the information available on the Internet is not reviewed by an editor or editorial review board, etc. Anyone with time and web space can create a Web site. While there is a tremendous amount of objective, useful, and authoritative information, there are also bogus, inaccurate, biased Web sites. The Internet is a "buyer beware" environment. Therefore, it is up to the researcher to examine and determine the quality and usefulness of each resource. Listed are criteria to use for evaluation of Internet resources:

  • Authority
  • Content
  • Publishing body
  • Objectivity
  • Bias
  • Currency
  • Accuracy
  • Audience

Is the author an authority such as a noted expert in the field, a researcher, or an educator?

Is the content appropriate for your purpose? Is the Internet resource comprehensive? Are the sources used to create the Internet resource listed in a bibliography or works cited page?

Publishing Body
Is the publisher of the Internet resource a reputable organization? For example, medical information found on the PubMed Web site is the product of a reputable organization, the National Institute of Health.

Is it objective?  Is the information presented from a non-biased viewpoint? 

Does the author try to persuade or display bias? For example see a pro-choice page such as Planned Parenthood and right to life Web site such as the National Right to Life Committee are examples of bias or Internet resources that try to persuade the researcher.

Is the information current.  Is the information up-to-date? When was the information posted? Is the date of the last revision or update listed?

Is the information correct? To determine accuracy compare the information found on the Internet Resource with information in books or other Internet resources from reputable authorities and experts in the subject area.

Who is the intended audience of the Internet resource:  children, students, teachers, general public, etc.? Select the Internet resource that is written for an audience that is appropriate for your research.

Additional Information
Links to additional information about the evaluation of Internet resources.


Many librarians have published guides for the development of Internet or library research assignments.  Listed below in the "Guidelines" section are the key steps instructors can incorporate to ensure that their students have a productive Internet research experience. 


  1. Determine the assignment objectives and communicate them in writing to your students.
  2. Determine what Internet resources are available to your students:
  • Web?
  • Subscription databases (which ones and how are they accessed)?
  • Online library resources (catalog, virtual reference librarian, etc.)?
  1. Provide a list of the above resources in the assignment instructions.  For details about subscription databases and other library resources, check the library Web site or contact the librarian.
  2. Use clear and consistent language.
  3. Prescreen the assignment by COMPLETING THE ASSIGNMENT YOURSELF.  This will reveal flaws and glitches that can make Internet research unnecessarily difficult.  Some community college librarians offer assignment review services to assist instructors with the research aspect of an assignment.
  4. REFER.  Stress to students where they can get additional help online and offline.   Offline help includes reference librarians and your office hours.  If you are referring students to the library, forward a copy of your assignment to the reference librarian in advance.  This will help the reference librarian help your students.
  5. Be mindful of copyright restrictions.  See Copyright and Intellectual Property Rights in the Digital Information Age for more information.
  6. Integrate research skills into your assignment.
  7. Inform your students about plagiarism and why it is prohibited.  Many students are not aware that "cutting and pasting" without citing sources is theft.


See samples of Internet research assignments: