Microbes - Friends or Foes? (FLC: BIOL 1110 / ENGL 1110)

A guide to using the web for research and critically evaluating resources you find

Online Searching

Sometimes it is appropriate to use Google or other general internet search engines as a part of your research. There are many reliable sites with good information - the trick is to find them. This page will give you some suggestions on how you can best use a search engine to bring you the highest quality results. 

Consider: What are you searching?

Search engines (Google, Bing, Duck Duck Go, etc.) only search part of the information on the internet - the "surface web". 

  • Not every site is indexed - excluded are password protected sites, sites that choose not to be indexed, sites without links, and the contents of databases -- including subscription-based library database content.
  • Not every word is indexed - each database has common stop words that it does not index and some engines only search a certain number of words on a page.
  • Not every page on a site is indexed - some engines limit their searches to the top two or three levels or exclude personal sites piggybacked onto another site.

Powerful Searching - using advanced search to optimize your results

Most Web search tools offer a simple search interface – the results are determined by an algorithm. If you want to exert more influence over the algorithm, it is necessary to take advantage of advanced search techniques.  Other techniques will help you refine your search. Please note that different search tools will use different symbols for truncation, phrase, and proximity searching – if they offer them at all – always check search help pages to see what is available.

If at first you don't find what you need:

  • Look beyond the first screen of search results.
  • Try the advanced search features offered by most search tools, like Google Advanced Search.
  • Find the help screens provided by the search engine producers for advanced search tips and operators to use for custom searches by file type, domain/site, language, and more -- Google Search Operators
  • Try more than one search engine.
  • Test your search skills by searching for more advanced tips! Not every search trick is clearly indexed and made available in a simple way by search engine providers.

Evaluating Information You Find on the Internet

Anyone can publish information on the internet. Websites rarely go through the exacting review process demanded by editors of published books and journal articles. It is therefore even more important to critically evaluate information you find online in terms of authority, purpose, scope, accuracy & objectivity, and usability.

After considering the questions listed below on the authority, purpose, scope & currency, accuracy, and usability of the website, ask yourself: Is it appropriate to use this web resource as evidence in support of my research?

If the answer is an unequivocally yes, great! If not, but you still feel the page has value, note your reservations & discuss with an instructor or librarian.


  • Who created the site?
  • Does the site list organizational information for creators?
  • Is the creator or author qualified to speak on the topic? How can you tell?
    • What expertise do they have? Degrees, other publications, affiliations with research institutes or universities?
    • Do a quick Google search on the author or publisher. What do you find? What do other people or publications say about them? If the consensus is positive, great! If not, explore further.
  • What does the URL indicate? Is this a personal or official site? Ex: Educational institution (.edu), non-profit organization (.org), a commercial site (.com), the U.S. government (.gov), the U.S. military (.mil), another country (.ca, .uk, .mx, etc), or other? Is there a tilda ~ in the URL (often indicates a personal page on an institutional website)? The URL isn't a guarantee that a website is good or bad, but it does provide some context for it.


  • What is the basic purpose of the website? Is the purpose stated? Check the "About" or "About us" page, if available.
  • Can you tell who the intended audience might be?
    • Researchers, students, general public, customers buying a product, etc.
  • Does the site disclose sponsorship, underwriting, or other affiliation to another organization or individual?


  • Is coverage regional, national, or international?
  • Is coverage recent or historical?

Accuracy & Objectivity

  • Is the information supported with evidence? Are facts documented or cited from original sources?
  • Does the site link out to other sites? If so, are those sites of good quality?


  • Is the site well designed and up to date with current web standards?
  • Does the site follow general rules of spelling, grammar, and punctuation?
  • Is the information supported with evidence? Are facts documented or cited from original sources?

Sample Websites

The information on some websites is more authoritative than others. The links below provide an opportunity to practice evaluating. Look for clues such as: who is the publisher? - Is it  a nonprofit, government agency/initiative, for-profit company, individual, etc.? What else can you learn about the publisher or authors on the site (what else have they published? what do other sources say about them?) Does the site include links to evidence such as other information, articles, or data sources?