Academic Technology @ Palomar College

Finding on a Web Page

Yesterday I posted on the most useful tips & tricks about using Google Search.  Today I would like to post on what to do once you use Google to go to a web page that may (or may not) contain the specific information you are looking for.

For a simple example, let’s say I am examining a transcript of the original 1787 constitution of the  United States, looking for what it had to say about slavery.  I find a transcript from a reliable source (http://www.archives.gov/exhibits/charters/constitution_transcript.html) and I press Ctrl-F on my keyboard (Command-F if you are using a Mac) and the find box appears.  Let me hasten to say that this is NOT a feature Google, but rather a feature of the browser I am using.  The find box will appear and behave slightly differently depending on WHICH browser I am using, but all four major browsers have one.  Let me also hasten to say that this is NOT a search box, but rather a find box.  It will find the presence of whater “string” you type in the box.  A string is any collection of characters that can be entered from the keyboard, whether they are parts of words or words in themselves (or numbers, or special characters, or whatever).  Bear that in mind because search functionality is far more complex than find technology.  Find is simply a brute force location of a specific character or set of characters, with none of the interpretive sophistication of search engines.

Back to our example.  I enter the find- term “slave” (without the quotes) but immediately discover that the word does not appear in the constitution.  This is strange, since I have been told that the constitution contains a 3/5 provision that originally counted slaves as 3/5 of a person for purposes of enumeration, giving the South an advantage over the northern states.  I have also been told that there was a “fugitive slave” provision in the original constitution, but how could there be if the word slave or (I try again with “slavery”) slavery does not appear.

This illustrates one of the under appreciated aspects of the find function.  In enormous lists, it immediately is able to prove the negative.  That is, it proves the words “slave” and “slavery” do not appear in the constitution, and I know this even without having to read the document.  In life it is all too rare when you are able to prove the negative of anything.

But how to proceed?  Will I be forced to read the entire document.  Heaven forbid!  A clever search strategy might be to employ a related term to what I know I am looking for.  Since I was told that slaves were counted as 3/5 of a person I try 3/5 in the find box.  No soap.  I try “three-fifths.”  No soap.  I try “three fifths” without the hyphen and bingo, Article I section 2:

Representatives and direct Taxes shall be apportioned among the several States which may be included within this Union, according to their respective Numbers, which shall be determined by adding to the whole Number of free Persons, including those bound to Service for a Term of Years, and excluding Indians not taxed, three fifths of all other Persons.

This gives me a clue about finding the “fugitive slave” part too.  The euphemism employed here for slavery is “bound to Service.”  When I find the term “Service” I find what I am looking for: Article IV, section 2:

No Person held to Service or Labour in one State, under the Laws thereof, escaping into another, shall, in Consequence of any Law or Regulation therein, be discharged from such Service or Labour, but shall be delivered up on Claim of the Party to whom such Service or Labour may be due.

Clearly, Ctrl-F is very useful when faced with long, densely textual web pages, or lists of anything.

As noted above, the find feature in each of the major browsers appears a bit differently.  In Firefox, my browser of choice, the find box appears in the status bar at the lower left of the browser.

Firefox Find Bar

The box will turn red if I enter a term that the find function cannot find.  The Highlight all feature highlights each instance of the term, and the Match case option is especially useful when distinguishing between two identical terms, one of which is capitalized.

In Chrome the find bar will appear at the upper right of the browser as a sort of inverted tab.

Chrome Find Bar

If the term does not exist on the page the number indicator turns red and says 0 of 0, otherwise it tells you the number of instances, which is nice, but does not have a Match case feature.

In Safari the find bar will appear at the upper right also, with a Not Found indicator if the term is not found, and indications of how many finds otherwise.

Safari Find Bar

I know that dimming web pages to highlight a portion of them is all the rage these days, but Safari’s behavior in this respect with found terms is annoying and distracting.

Finally, in IE9, the find bar appears at the upper left of the screen, with an Options drop-down that contains the match case option.

IE Find Bar

So with only minor variations, all four major browsers provide a find function that will powerfully enhance your search capabilities.

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