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How to Choose the Right Words for Best Search Results

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Diane T. Sands

Dear Savvy Searcher,

My students keep wanting to enter their entire research question into the search bar. I keep trying to tell them that’s a bad idea. How do you teach students to identify the right words to use in a search?

Frustrated Educator





Dear Frustrated,

I had a particular conversation with a student a while back. It might sound familiar:

“But how do I know what the important words are?” The student looked up at me, perplexed. She stared back at her paper, where she had written Did George Washington ever write a diary? “Every word is important, or my question wouldn’t make sense!”

She had a point, of course. We had been discussing a method to distill a question into its components and turn it into a strong query, the string of words she would type into a search engine to look for her answer. Students have often expressed that it's hard to identify “just the words they need.”

Based on how Google ranks search results, typing in a question will be more likely to bring back pages with a question for a title. In many of our everyday searches this is an easy way to find question and answer sites when we want them, but Q&A sites are not necessarily authoritative sources for school work. So I have students write down their questions and teach them how to mark them up to create queries, the first step being to identify the significant words.

A marked up question

Explaining how to distinguish the important words has sometimes proven challenging with younger students. Recently, however, fellow Googler AJ Kimbembe observed that the mark-up process reminded him of rebuses. You might remember these puzzles from childhood, where select words in a narrative are replaced with pictures. We started playing with the idea, and realized this could be a great lesson for students in identifying the best search terms.

Nouns frequently make good search terms, so students can start by drawing the people, places, and things in their questions. For example, I challenged another child with the question about whether George Washington ever wrote a diary, and he drew this:

Drawing of George Washington and his diary

The searchable parts of this picture are [George Washington diary].

Compare the results:

Search results for: "Did George Washington ever write a diary?"

Search results for: George Washington diary

From an academic standpoint, the second result brought back highly authoritative sources that are specifically about diaries, rather than other books. The sources in the second search also appear relatively straightforward and clear, which is preferable for a younger researcher.

Verbs and adjectives can also help in many cases. They may be harder to draw, but it strikes me that the challenge can be framed appropriately to help children think more critically about where to place their efforts. Consider this visualization a child drew for his question: What is the best wood for dogs to chew?

This search did not get satisfactory results. Why? It appears that there is a general agreement among dog-lovers that there are healthier items for dogs to chew than wood, so he found no recommendations for a “best wood.” He could not have done any better with shorter searches, though, as dog wood gets results for the dogwood plant. A good rebus does not guarantee a successful resolution to a question, but neither does it preclude using verbs and adjectives.

Usually, the strongest queries do not include particles or other function words, but sometimes they make a big difference. Here is an example of why Google considers all the words you type in:

Trying to decide which little words to toss out becomes easier when you illustrate.

There are other benefits of illustrating searches. For example, on the Search Education team, we often find that searchers get stuck with the phrasing in which a question first occurs to them. Working from images seems to free up the mind to look for synonyms. When the young boy illustrated his question about wood that is good for dogs, he drew a tree to represent wood. Looking at his drawing, the word stick also offered itself as a search term. Similarly, librarian and cartoonist Diane T. Sands’ daughter wanted to know what lizards eat, which prompted her to sketch out the rebus at the top of this post. Even knowing her original question, looking at the rebus I searched for lizard food, rather than lizard eat, which brought back different results.

As students graduate to more sophisticated questions, this method will not take them as far. But it makes a great teaching tool to get students off on the right foot...leading to teachers and students who are less frustrated.

Try your own rebus and send me your favorite!

Contact Tasha and check out the Search Education Team’s resources.



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