Web Magazine for Information Professionals

Book Review: Teaching Web Search Skills

Verity Brack takes a look at this book for Web trainers, teachers and instructors.

Greg Notess has brought together techniques and strategies for Web search training not only from his own experience but also from a number of well known Web search trainers; readers will recognise the names of Joe Barker, Paul Barron, Phil Bradley, John Ferguson, Alice Fulbright, Ran Hock, Jeff Humphrey, Diane Kovacs, Gary Price, Danny Sullivan, Rita Vine, and Sheila Webber.

As the author notes, 'Teaching web search engines is complex', and this book is an attempt to recognise the diversity of approaches by offering different styles, techniques and examples. There is a new Internet audience carrying out frequent searching but which has little or no formal instruction, and little understanding of how complex the search process really is. The need for adaptability and the use of different approaches is emphasised.

The book covers general training topics such as understanding your audience and instructional session gaols, along with more detailed chapters on Web search features, terminology and concepts. All these are enhanced by the inclusion of comments, suggestions, advice and anecdotes from the group of 'super trainers' above. Notess devotes a section of his Web site to providing updates to the URLs mentioned in the book [1].

Chapters 1, 2 and 3 provide an overview of the key issues and challenges of Web search teaching now that we are in the 'Google Age', plus discussions regarding the need to understand your audience, and how to select the appropriate type of instructional session for your users. Chapter 4 looks at the advantages and disadvantages of online tutorials, and lists a number of favourites, including, I'm pleased to report, the Resource Discovery Network (RDN) Virtual Training Suite (now the Intute Virtual Training Suite [2]). Chapter 5 then goes on to look at the organisation of training sessions, their focus, length and goals.

So far the book offers nothing particularly new for the experienced trainer, although for people beginning a career in training or teaching there is a lot of useful advice. However, Chapter 6 onwards contains far more that I personally found useful and interesting - there are some real gems of information and ideas that have made me look again at what and how I teach.

Chapter 6 looks at the terminology of Web search services, explaining and defining terms such as 'metasite' and 'portal'. It is fascinating to read the variations of these terms as used by the expert trainers, and how they are explained to the students. Chapter 7 discusses what search features to teach; the experts all agree that phrase searching is a key concept but differ on whether or not it is important to teach Boolean searching and the '+ or -' operators. Discussions of other features such as field searching, limiting searches, sorting and stop words are also included.

Chapter 8 runs through a number of the most frequently taught primary concepts, such as defining the research process and analysing the question, using more than one search tool, and search engines vs directories. Evaluation of Web information is included here but surprisingly only briefly for such an important topic; although the book does refer you to a number of excellent resources on evaluating information, including the Bibliography on Evaluating Web Information [3]. Additional useful concepts to teach, for example, how to identify Web advertising, and understanding databases, are also covered. Chapter 9 then follows on with additional types of content to include, such as image searching, news, multimedia, and the invisible web. Brief descriptions of various search engines and their main features comprise Chapter 10, and I certainly found this a useful section of the book.

I consider Chapter 11 to be a slight digression from the main focus of the volume, in that it goes into detail on creating workshop Web pages using frames in HTML. While the author obviously finds these a useful addition to his teaching resources, unfortunately there is no mention of accessibility problems that the use of frames causes (and, of course, in the UK it is a legal requirement for all Web sites to be accessible - see the Royal National Institute of the Blind Web site [4]).

Chapter 12 is a short but very useful section on presentation tips, including a table of browser keyboard shortcuts for Internet Explorer 6, Mozilla/Netscape 7 and Firefox - something that I shall copy and pin up in my office! The final chapter is 'Tales from the Trenches', a selection of anecdotes and examples from the group of expert trainers, to my mind the most interesting part of the book. Finally, the book contains three appendices, with Appendix B reproducing a selection of handouts created by the experts. These are there to give you ideas for your own training and teaching; if you do want to use any of the materials, remember that the copyright belongs to the authors or their organisations, and you must obtain permission before using them.

In summary, I found this an interesting book, particularly the latter part plus the sample handouts. It has prompted me to rethink my approach to Web searching and to include some new topics. It has also provided some comfort in that, when things go wrong in a training session, I am not alone: Notess has

'spoken with many trainers who, in a hands-on instructional setting, have had an entire group do the exact same search on the exact same search engine and still get different results.'


  1. The companion Web site http://www.notess.com/teaching/
  2. Intute Virtual Training Suite http://www.vts.intute.ac.uk/
  3. Bibliography on Evaluating Web Information
  4. Royal National Institute of the Blind (RNIB) Web Access Centre

Author Details

Dr. Verity Brack
IT Programme Director
Institute for Lifelong Learning
University of Sheffield

Email: v.brack@shef.ac.uk

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