Google for Botanists & Gardeners

Author: Daniel Mosquin Web Published and Posted: March 11, 2003

Introduction and Comparison

The World Wide Web (WWW) has grown from thousands of web pages in the early 1990s to billions of pages today. The need to organize and search through the information available on web pages became apparent in the nascent days of the WWW. The past decade has seen both organization and searchability evolve and merge into the powerful search engines of the present day. Of these, currently the most popular is Google. Google combines usability, human judgment and a patented algorithm to produce search results that tend to be superior or the equal of its competitors.

Brief History of Organizing the Web

Organization of the Web developed rapidly, as it was easy in the early 1990s for one person or group to create a web page that contained a link to all pages pertaining to a particular topic. Attempts at organizing the web have now generally shifted toward massive volunteer-run projects. Of these, the largest is the Open Directory Project (ODP). The ODP uses a hierarchical system to categorize web sites and pages within directories (e.g., Science > Biology > Botany > Botanical Gardens and Arboreta). The effort relies on volunteers who are responsible for different areas of the hierarchy. Volunteers review submitted sites and existing sites within the directory on a regular basis. Sites are included or excluded on the basis of content, so that it is reasonable for a user of the ODP to assume that sites listed within the directory are high quality. Google uses the judgment of the ODP volunteers as part of its algorithm for determining the relevancy of a page, by positively weighing sites and pages within the ODP.

Brief History of Search Engines

Early attempts to develop search engines (a tool for finding information on the web) were limited to computer programs that located web servers (computers that host web sites). The ability to search evolved, with it soon becoming possible to search for web page addresses and titles. In 1994, Webcrawler provided the first search engine that indexed the content of a web page and incorporated it into the results of a search. All present day major search engines index the content of a web page, including Google.

The Difference Between Search Engines

Different search engines yield different results for any given search. The algorithms determining search results for each search engine weigh factors including placement in the ODP or other directories, credibility and number of outside pages linking to a particular site, relevancy of content within the page and, for some search engines, amount paid. The most popular search engines, including Google, do not charge for placement in search results.

However, the success of Google is not limited to the strength of its algorithms. Google can credit some of its popularity to its ease of use and its simplicity. The lack of colourful ads and clutter on the page produce a quick loading page that is straightforward to use. Upon visiting Google, it is immediately apparent what one must do to begin a simple search - type text into the box and press the submit button.

Using Google

Some practice is required to determine what phrase or word to submit to the search engine, as a successful search depends on being specific, but not too specific. Generally, the fewer the words entered, the more general the search. This rule does not work well with uncommon words, like Rehderodendron, as they tend to be specific by their infrequency.

Google is case insensitive, so a search can be done with any combination of upper and lower case letters - even FlOrA SOUTH africa will work.

Google attempts to find pages that contain all the terms entered in the submission by default. For example, a search for hosta rid slugs will find the pages indexed by Google that contain all of the three words. Google ignores common words in a search. To include a common word, place a plus sign in front of it, such as hosta rid +of slugs. Alternatively, to search for a specific phrase that includes common words, put quotation marks around the phrase, e.g. "how do I get rid of slugs". To include that phrase while being specific to Hosta, search for "how do I get rid of slugs" hosta.

Exclusion of a term is also possible from search results. To search for a common term like garden, but to exclude many commercial web sites, search for garden -com. This eliminates all the ".com" web sites. Similarly, to search specifically for viburnum leaf, but exclude viburnum leaf beetle, search for "viburnum leaf" -beetle. As Google does not support wild card searches, to exclude both viburnum leaf beetle and viburnum leaf beetles from the previous search, the best search phrase would be "viburnum leaf" -beetle -beetles.

Google also supports "or" searches. For example, a search for Viburnum rhytidophyllum or leatherleaf viburnum should be entered as "leatherleaf viburnum" OR "viburnum rhytidophyllum". It is required to capitalize the OR.

Finally, it is possible to restrict Google to a specific site. This is done by prefacing the URL with site: to restrict the search. A search for "companion planting" on would be done as follows: "companion planting".

Google - More Than Web Pages

On the main Google page, several tabs appear above the box for entering search terms. Clicking on any tab evaluates the search within the context of that category. For example, clicking on the images tab and then searching for "leatherleaf viburnum" OR "viburnum rhytidophyllum" results in pictures. At any time, a different tab can be selected and the search terms in the box will carry over to the new category. Different tabs are available depending on whether you have a Google account and are logged in or not, so only the two most used tabs are described here:

The Web tab searches web pages. However, it also includes other documents that are accessible over the Internet. These include PDF, Microsoft Office (DOC, XLS, PPT), and Corel WordPerfect file types.

The Images tab restricts the search to GIF, JPG and PNG file types. Image searches are imperfect, particularly for terms that have multiple meanings, like magnolia or rose. A search for rose flower yields better results, but then excludes many rose images from a search for rose that Google can not infer to be an image of a rose flower based on image name or context.

Google Tips

Tip #1: Google will occasionally suggest an alternate spelling to a search term. This is often useful when the search term is difficult to spell. For example, on a search for secrateurs, Google automatically suggests the correct secateurs, but also gives you an option to search for what you originally typed in.

Tip #2: The results of a search often allow a user to see a cached version of the page (a link to Cached appears on the bottom right of a search result). Cached means that the page has been partially saved as a copy on Google's computers, so that a duplicate of the original page exists. This has a double benefit to users of the search engine. First, if a web page has been moved or deleted, the cached version will display the text of the original page. Secondly, Google will automatically highlight the search terms that were used in the cached version of the page. For text-heavy web pages, this is invaluable, as it allows a user to scan a web page quickly for the relevant terms.

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