What is a Query?

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To query pretty much describes the entire search process. An individual query is exactly what you ask your search engine to go looking for. It is the distilled essence of your questions--formed in a way that best retrieves the information you are seeking.

A question is not a query. Think instead of a question as the first step in forming your query and beginning the process of inquiry. Understanding this distinction is important in creating a query: directly crafting keywords and syntax in a meaningful way that results in an effective search. To do this requires understanding how to select keywords and use operators.

A query is made up of the keywords that describe the topic and the meaning of those keywords; operators may further focus the retrieval process. From a question like: 'How do you track satellites?' the keywords TRACK and SATELLITE are good choices. Depending on what you know or discover about this field, professional language may be added: ORBIT and TELEMETRY. A query may start simply; it may become complex.

The Query Process

Besides being a verb, query is a noun and refers to the entire process of searching.

Flow chart of the query process

This process is a series of decisions and actions. This action path may be understood as a distinct process. (See figure: The Query Process.) Once a topic is selected, the next decision is where to search. If a topic is vague, consider browsing a subject index in order to refine the idea by looking at word options. If the topic has a narrow and specific focus, a search engine is the better option.

Once the query is formed, enter the terms into the search box of the selected search engine or subject index. Then evaluate the results. If the answer is apparent, the process ends. Otherwise, the query should be revised and the search continues.

Revision may mean changing or rearranging the query terms or selecting a new search engine.

What is the difference between a question and a query?

A question can be the beginning of a query. The need to look something up is generally where it starts. A search engine doesn't interpret a question the same way a person would. Therefore, instead of asking a search engine for a question, ask it for an answer. Turn the query into an answer. This subtle difference can produce different results. Think about what words might be used in the answer being sought. This is one reason this type of searching is called speculative. Using the satellite tracking example, it changes how do you track satellites to satellites are tracked using equipment . It doesn't matter that equipment isn't the right word. It could be a best guess, but returns results where equipment names may be found.

No matter what query is used, always take a moment to see which words appear in bold in the snippets. Track and Satellite are the words that found in bold. The other parts of speech and punctuation are ignored or discarded.

The best approach is always to use the fewest words possible--although more than one word is usually required. Two to five words is recommended. If there is no other way to say it, use natural language with a search engine like Google; meaningful results will be found. Semantic search engines (Hakia was one but is no longer public) are now capable of making sense out of sentences. Many search engines have not achieved this level of sophistication, which is why it is still good to concentrate on essential keywords.

Should a subject index be used instead of a search engine?

Cartoon,  looking into the head of a man, you see a question mark. Subject index or search engine he ponders.

After considering the words to be searched, decide where to look for the information.

In the earlier days of the Internet, Subject Indices were more abundant and easier to find. Some may still be found and are useful for discovering keywords and resources you might not think of on your own. Use a subject index when the search idea is not well understood or keywords are hard to think of. A subject index or directory works by by browsing (clicking links). These categories--also called folksonomies--help to narrow a search more quickly.

By digging down into subcategories, information that has been carefully selected to match the topic is listed (by qualified reviewers). Subject indexes are good to reduce broad categories of information to more specific ones. Here's one example of a subject directory: Virtual Middle School Library

If you are investigating a specific or limited topic, a search engine is still a better choice. Search engines process queries to find highly specific information (e.g., matching multiple keywords). Thereforem if you already understand the vocabulary of a field, use those terms as keywords. Additionally, if up-to-date information is needed, a search engine is more likely to produce those results. Subject Directories are no longer as effective as search engines.

More about keyword selection

Nothing helps to find just the right information more quickly than using well-chosen keywords in unique combinations in a query.

Extract the most meaningful words from the question to start with. Identify keywords that have specific meanings; avoid ambiguous terms.

For more on coming up with the right combination of keywords see Keywords.

What are operators? How do operators affect queries?

Operators in a query instruct the search engine what to do with one or more terms.

For example, the query dolphins -football excludes the word football from all documents retrieved.

Operators may be used to group individual terms into an exact phrase like "George Washington professional football player".

Among the many things that may be done with operators is searching for keywords that appear in an important 'field' within the HTML code of a Web page. For example title:science returns pages with the word science in the title of the page. The query tutorial site:21cif.com retrieves all the files containing the word tutorial indexed on the 21cif site.

By crafting a query using specific keywords and operators, useful results may be obtained, saving valuable time.

AND + Requires all terms to appear somewhere in the document, in any order.
Example: curriculum high school. Most search engines no longer require AND or +, the space bar adds this function.
OR || Selects one of the terms to appear somewhere in the document.
Example: high school student || learner
"" Requires all terms within the quotation marks to appear in the order written. Creates a specific phrase.
Example: "high school student" (will not return "high school learner")
NOT - Excludes documents containing whatever follows it.
Example: high school -yearbook
site: Returns results only from the site named
Example: tutorials site:21cif.com
For more about operators, see Operators

This introductory explanation of keywords and operators may be supplemented with Keyword Tutorials.

Authored by Dennis O'Connor and Carl Heine | Refreshed in 2019