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Feb. 20, 2003, Gazette

Skill needed for effective Web searches

Sue Fahey doing a search on MEDLINEplus.
Photo by HSIMS
Sue Fahey doing a search on MEDLINEplus.

The Internet can provide a wealth of information on topics such as health, but it pays to know what you’re doing before you go surfing.

Surprisingly, a search with an engine like Google only covers a portion of the Web. “Google estimates there are three billion Web sites in their database, but estimates are that there are as many as 12 billion Web sites out there on the Internet today,” said Sue Fahey, a librarian with the Health Sciences Library. “You have to remember that a search engine only reaches a certain part of the Web, the part that’s available for free and the part that’s searchable by programs known as spiders or robots.”

Ms. Fahey said that commonly used search engines, such as Google, have their place. “For example they can help people find support groups for certain health problems. But the onus is on you to evaluate what’s being said in these groups.”

The “invisible” Web is not found by search engines, and includes sites that require you to search individual databases. Some of these databases are free while others charge for access. Libraries such as the Health Sciences Library pay to use some of these databases.

“We sign contracts and we identify our user group,” explained Ms. Fahey. That user group includes students, faculty and staff as well as anyone who walks in the doors of the library looking for information. “A member of the general public can’t access a licensed database at home, but they can come into the library and get the information.”

These licensed databases contain some consumer health information but much more can be found using the freely available databases.

Ms. Fahey has a select handful of the freely available databases that she trusts for current and accurate consumer health information (see sidebar). Her first choice is MEDLINEplus, a site paid for by the National Library of Medicine and kept up-to-date by a large and experienced staff. “There are also links to more information from good sites within MEDLINEplus, and not having to worry about evaluation eliminates about half your work.”

Besides recommending selected Web sites and offering tips for surfing the Internet, Ms. Fahey has an important piece of advice. “Don’t trust everything you read – assume there’s a bias.”