Many researchers begin by using a search engine, such as Yahoo! or Google. Search engines work by sending out "spiders" (software programs) that takes a snapshot of a site at a particular point in time. The search engine builds an index of the words located on those web pages. When a search is conducted, the search engines look for that word or phrase that was typed into the query bar. A list of links to sites that included your search terms are then displayed, which is your list of results or hits.
The results of a search are often divided into two types: Organic Results and Sponsored Links. Organic Results are those found by the "spider," while the sponsored links are paid for by outside sources.
Using search engines can be a great method for searching the internet when you want to just run a general search or when you really do want to retrieve as much information as possible. Keep in mind, however, that not every website is searchable and indexed on the search engines.
(Information for this section from Levitt, Carole A., and Mark E. Rosch. The cybersleuth's guide to the internet: conducting effective investigative & legal research on the web. 9th ed. Culver City, Calif.: Internet for Lawyers, 2008. Print.)
It is important for any researcher to know exactly how he or she is going to format the search. There are two search options: Natural language searching and Boolean searching. A natural language search is similar to a “Google” style search. A natural language search will search for all words in the query using a basic AND operator and searches for words in close proximity to each other. With a natural language search, you often get more search results, but the results may be less relevant. Natural Language searches are usually best when you have a unique topic, when you have a topic in a broad area with which you are unfamiliar, or when you know exactly the type of result you need.
Boolean searches, also known as Terms and Connectors searches, allow you to create specific chains when formatting your query. You often get fewer results, but the results you retrieve are more relevant. This can save time in researching because you will not have to read through countless pages of irrelevant results. Some basic Boolean operators are AND, OR, NOT, w/# (limits the results to those where your two words are within a certain proximity of each other), ! (used as a root expander, e.g. a search of “tax!” would retrieve tax, taxes, taxation, etc. ), quotation marks (retrieves the exact match), w/p (within the same paragraph), and w/s (within the same sentence). It’s important to note that Boolean searching can be done on Westlaw by selecting the Advanced Search option.