Searching the Web

Information and Communications Technology (ICT) has changed how health professionals work with data and information. Developments in ICT enable us to store and access an almost unlimited volume of materials. This material is generally accessible from anywhere in the world. We are also increasingly less constrained by the way we access this. As personal computing devices become more powerful, mobile computing, RSS feeds, cloud computing and social networking provide additional freedoms in how we interface and organise our resources. The growth in search engines and query matching processes also means that it is possible to find information more quickly. We can pursue areas of interest through immediate hyperlinks to other electronic resources.

Watch video discussing clinician needs when searching online

Video - Searching for online resources

What is the Web?

The Web, or more properly the World Wide Web, is part of the Internet. The Internet is a worldwide collection of computer networks that exchange data by using common standards called protocols. The Web is a shared space on the Internet that allows computers to use a common protocol, Hypertext Transfer Protocol (HTTP), to access webpages via hyperlinks. Hyperlinks are direct links to another web page. They can be embedded in the text and by clicking on the link the user is taken to the new page. A web browser such as Microsoft Internet Explorer, Mozilla Firefox or Google Chrome is a software application that we use to interact with webservers and access documents on the Web.

Some usage characteristics

It is hard to know how large the Web is. One estimate suggests that it has over 600 billion indexable pages. [1] Comscore reports 18.6 billion searches in February 2013 for the US alone. [2] There are likely to be well over the 100,000 health websites estimated in 2002. [3]

Eysenbach and Kohler [4] have suggested that 4.5% of internet searches are health related. Given that Google reports over 1 billion  searches per day, this represents at least 45 million health related searches every day on Google alone. 

Considerations in using the Web

There are things to consider when searching the Web. Firstly, the Web is an unregulated environment. Provided you can access the internet, it is possible to create a website. Unlike journals, websites and webpages may not have a peer review process. As there is no requirement to maintain a site, the information may be outdated. Material is often transient in that it can be moved or removed without notice, effectively ceasing to exist.

There are two drawbacks in using search engines on the Web. First, they do not directly assess the quality of sites and hence the materials retrieved. Second, searching is based on textwords rather than a library indexing system such as MeSH terms. This means that a search term may return many irrelevant items. Web searches can also return thousands of possible matches.

However, there are, many benefits. The Web contains information and materials that may not be able to be accessed in any other way. It enables access to and sharing of databases and datasets. There are also new applications for use in the web environment that can facilitate online dissemination and interaction [5] such as social bookmarking systems (e.g. delicious and diigo) or social citations (CiteULike).