Search the web#

Estimate value#

A specialization of Expand focus specific to the problem of finding external pedagogical materials.

Design test#

The result of this process should be a list of resources that score highly according to measure of both Relevance and quality. See Evaluate pedagogical tool for the “quality” scoring criteria used here. For other potential measures see Quality (business) and Data quality. See also Relevance (information retrieval).

Said another way (and simplifying to only a binary relevance metric), this process should provide higher precision searches because you are applying extra filters down to a higher quality subset of the internet. See Precision and recall - Definition (information retrieval context). See also Evaluation measures (information retrieval).

Leave negotiability#

Should your stopping point be a certain number of documents? It may be better to provide a range, so you can stop based on how the search is going. Was the last document you discovered better than the previous? How much better? How much extra time did it take to find?

You can’t be sure a question, even if it matches your question word for word, is being asked in the same context or provides a sufficiently detailed answer. All results are only probabilistic; as you work through this limited set of search results you’ll need to continue to decide which to focus on.

There’s always a balance between finding a resource that perfectly answers your question (high relevance), and a resource that is high quality. You should “score” every resource by both its relevance and it’s general quality. How you weigh relevance and quality should depend on the relative confidence you have that the question you’re working on is more important than other related questions. When you were picking between different potential questions to answer, how did the question weights differ? Did you actually come up with the question because you noticed an article on it somewhere (found an interesting question while exploring)? Said another way, if you find a high quality resource that answers a related question, should you be opportunistic and read it instead?

How much you favor high-relevance documents to high-quality documents will depend on how focused your research is in the moment (more focused rather than basic/exploratory will favor high-relevance documents i.e. those you already understand). See Set goal. However, a high quality resource may still be a cheaper solution only because it provides better documentation.

A perfect system would provide you with a document that exactly answered your query, but that would be the equivalent of asking an educated person for the answer (expensive). Not only would the person need to address the specific question, they’d have to answer it in words you understand. In some sense, they’d be doing your job (sounds good, but rare).

What’s the relative value in web searching relative to reading? How much time should you spend searching relative to the time you spend reading? You aren’t learning much when you web search; it’s a rather shallow process. You will typically get more from a conversation with a single webpage than a conversation with your search engine (i.e. put slightly more weight on high quality documents). For example, you’re often relieved to go e.g. on vacation and only be able read documents rather than weigh them.

Estimate cost#

See also Document retrieval.

Apply default filters#

We all know paywall sites that we ignore in search results because they may not even let you see what you want to see. Why not filter them to avoid wasting any attention on them? Use uBlacklist to block websites like this, or to filter websites you’ve checked the license on using the process in Evaluate pedagogical tool.

Explore by website#

Have you found “gold” on certain Websites in the past? You may want to mine them by e.g. their own scoring criteria or by simply browsing what’s available.

One major downside to this approach is that you aren’t coming to the material with your own question, asking what you want of it (fitting it into your own knowledge) rather than having it tell you what is valuable or useful. By definition, it’s also widening your focus, taking you away from whatever you were currently working on. It can also be hard to remember when you last “mined” a website; what is new?

Some of these “blogs” are also written like advertisements. They are designed to cause you to panic; the authors talk as if they are about to hit AGI because that’s what they want their stakeholders to think. If you see impressive results investigate how they achieved it, and you’ll be less impressed.

Still, don’t hate their success. They are successful because they are taking the time to demo, unlike many authors. They’re learning fast. Reading what they’re doing has been one great way to get yourself to stop maintaining large bodies of your own notes; you’ve often seen them doing work you’ve already been considering (such as writing source code) and their advertisements drive you to learn new topics (e.g. Transformers). To some extent these sites have earned your priors, like a brand.

Semantic scholar (!s2 uses the search built into only provides articles that aren’t behind a paywall. This site makes it easier to follow references in papers by turning them into links. See:

Some websites don’t seem searchable via DuckDuckGo; you must go to them specifically. Use Connected Papers to find high-scoring papers that are closely related to a topic you are already focusing on. Click on papers to highlight them in the graph; zoom in so nodes don’t overlap so much. You can only build 5 free custom graphs (with multiple origin papers) on this site; see Connected Papers | Pricing.

Other resources:

Limit the number of websites you regularly visit, to make relearning from them easier and focus your investments. To learn to use a website is an investment in itself, such as e.g. learning how to insert a reference on Wikipedia, where to find activity history, or how to construct links to specific answers on SE. If you need to relearn a topic, it will help to be able to relearn from an easily accessible website (one that shows up quickly in search). Websites even have certain layouts that you get used to and therefore lead to less “surprise” when you go to a completely new page on the same site. That is, you’ll hit a memory-guided Saccade more often.


The equivalent of high scoring articles on Wikipedia is “Good” or “Featured” articles. It’s much harder to judge which of these are worth reading, and there’s a higher barrier to entry for influencing how an article is ranked (who knows how?). See for example:

Stick to your keyboard#

Use H and L rather than the left and right arrows on your keyboard so you don’t lose your hand’s home position.

Copy text#

One option is to use vimium’s / then n (see [Find Mode | Vimium][fm]) to searching with Ctrl-F (or F3). The copying process:

  1. After reaching the text, hit v to enter [Visual Mode | Vimium][vm].

  2. Use any of the characters mentioned in the documentation (e.g. w, e) to select text.

  3. Hit y to copy.

Hit N to go back in your search; n does not wrap back to the top. Use c-[ rather than Esc with Vimium. You can also hit v then use / to search (opposite order). The downside to this approach is vimium’s search doesn’t highlight all instances of a word.

You can also use F7 to enable “Caret browsing” in Firefox (see Keyboard shortcuts - Perform common Firefox tasks quickly | Firefox Help). Vimium also has a caret mode where you can use keys from vim rather than the arrow keys. Hit c from visual mode.