Nicholson, S. (1997). Using the Internet for fast facts. Internet Trend Watch for Libraries (defunct e-journal) 2(8). Updated and available online at

Please note - This is a reprint of this article retrieved from The e-journal "Internet Trend Watch for Libraries" no longer exists. Some notes, in italics, were added in 2003 to bring the information up to date.
Volume 2, Number 8
August 1997

Editor's Note

Using the Internet for Fast Facts
by Scott Nicholson

ACCESS Pennsylvania - 12 Years Old and Still Growing by Darlene Young

Beneath the Surface of Internet Search Tools: Differences in Web Databases by Scott Nicholson

Moving Database Content to the Web - Handling Characteristics by Jay Ven Eman, Ph.D.

Internet Toolkit

Using the Internet for Fast Facts
Scott Nicholson

The Internet is the largest full-text database ever created, and many librarians have inexpensive access to this resource. A plethora of facts can be quickly mined using a few techniques with full-text search tools, such as Alta Vista or Infoseek (Infoseek no longer exists. Current tools to use would be Alta Vista, Google, or Alltheweb) A full-text search tool is a tool where the web database is created by indexing every word from every included page. This article will teach you Internet search techniques to apply when researching a question requiring a short, factual answer. It also offers a few precautions when using the Internet to accomplish this.

The first step is to, with apologies to Jeopardy, phrase the question in the form of an answer. Think about how the question would be answered on a web page, and pick out a short key phrase from that answer phrase. Pick out as few words as you can for this key phrase, but still hold the meaning and uniqueness of the phrase.

Examples: Question - "What was the highest grossing movie of 1996?" Answer - "The highest grossing move of 1996 was . . ." Key phrase - "highest grossing movie of 1996"

Question - "How many inches are there in one meter?"
Answer - "There are ... inches in a meter."
Key phrase - "inches in a meter"

Second, enter the key phrase surrounded by quotes. In most full-text tools, surrounding a search with quotes forces a phrase search. If the search tool uses something else to indicate a phrase search, use it instead. If this search is not successful, then think about other words or variant spellings (such as color and colour) that could be used in the phrase and try again. In the examples above, other key phrases are "top grossing movie of 1996" and "inches per meter". If this doesn't work, try the same searches without quotes. This will broaden the search, and should point to you pages that might contain the desired answer.

Third, once you get to a Web site's page, find the phrase on the page. It might not be apparent at first why a page was listed as containing the phrase, but the phrase will be there (if not, it was probably in a previous incarnation of the page). Use the FIND feature on your browser to search for your phrase. Many times, the phrase may be hidden deep within paragraphs of text, but the phrase should be on the page somewhere. The FIND command will take you straight to your phrase and the answer to your question.

Finally, examine the source. The quality control available in this type of searching is limited to that of full-text search tool you are using. Examine the source, currency and last revision date of the web page to help judge its reliability. If you are unsure, see if there are other pages with confirming or conflicting information. While this still does not guarantee accuracy, if you can find more pages with the same fact, then you can be more confident that the fact is accurate. As with all reference work, always cite the complete URL for the source when giving the answer to a patron.

A full-text search tool is a powerful ally in finding fast facts when properly used. It allows you to find the answers to questions when the patron doesn't have information that is normally indexed (such as a few words from the middle of a poem) or enough information to select a print resource (such as a person's name, but no idea in what field the person works). Abstracting search tools, such as Excite and Hotbot (Excite is now a front for paid placement and Hotbot now is a valid tool for this type of search), can be used as secondary sources, but they lose a lot of usefulness in this type of searching as they just index a small portion of each page. The proper application of these search tools can save you hours of digging through books and articles to find a factual answer, and will assist you in adding the Internet search tools to your toolbox of resources for answering questions.

If you'd like to learn more about the difference between search tools based on the indexing methods of their underlying web databases, see "Beneath the Surface of Internet Search Tools: Differences in Web Databases" (No longer exists) or "Indexing and Abstracting on the World Wide Web: An Examination of Six Web Databases" in the June 1997 issue of Information Technology and Libraries, both by Scott Nicholson. There's also a web version of this information aimed at patron use at

[Scott Nicholson is currently working on his doctorate in Information Science at the University of North Texas and works as a private computer instructor and consultant. He has worked as a Reference/Electronic Services librarian at Texas Christian University, and he is active in the American Library Association.] (Dr. Scott Nicholson is now a professor at Syracuse University)

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