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Web Search: Search engines

Search engines

Whilst Google is considered the biggest, or at least most popular search engine, there are thousands of other search engines available. Some of these are direct competitors, offering a comparable but different experience, such as Bing, DuckDuckGoYahooAsk and more. However, there are many more smaller search engines, including a huge number of smaller ones that search a specific website, document type or social media outputs (e.g. YouTube, Instagram). New search engines appear all the time, just as existing search engines can disappear, or rapidly change functionality.

No search engine indexes more than a small percentage of the visible web. As such it is advisable not to depend on a single search engine, particularly when conducting literature reviews. Each engine will index a different range of pages. They might overlap in coverage a great deal but will also differ in what algorithms they use to retrieve and rank results. Some search engines like Google will learn from your past searches and increasingly personalise results.

In addition, most of the web is ‘hidden’; content that cannot be indexed by search engines, largely because it is either password protected or behind a paywall. This includes a lot of the content within the expensive 100+ electronic databases the Library subscribes to for finding scholarly literature, data and other content for learning and teaching. You may find Google Scholar and some subject-specific search engines (for example TechXtra) are complimentary when conducting literature searches and may index papers that you can also find in the scholarly databases, but they will not find or provide full-text to everything.

If unsure where to start or which alternative search engines might help you diversify your web searching approach, you could try a meta-search engine. These apply your search across multiple search engines at once then collate results from these. This can give you a quick sense of the differences in results and perhaps highlight other search engines with particularly relevant results you would like to try. Popular meta search engines include for example DuckDuckGoMetaCrawlerStartpageDraze and others. There is also specifically for searching social media content.

There are also wiki and news search engines. See more about the newspaper databases we subscribe to here and on your subject resource pages.

As search engine functionality evolves and new content formats come and go, it is very useful to think about which are going to work best for your search, strategies for composing effective searches and then refining your results.

Top tips for web searches


Take a look at the Google advanced search page to find useful combination terms for your search. Many of these can be applied across different search engines.

Resolving the issue of 'site not found'.

You can shorten the URL of the website you are searching for to the last forward slash and occasionally this will find the home page of the website and you can search for the exact page you were looking for.

Configuring your homepage and bookmarking

You should be able to edit your browser's homepage to add your most useful websites for quick access. You can also bookmark pages so that you can easily retrieve them again.

Put important keywords first in your search

Search engines will look for all of the words in your search but will prioritise the first words.

Mobile apps for searching multiple search engines 

  1. Just Search - you can switch between different search engines and pin your favourites.
  2. picTrove - searches images.

Further reading: Bradley, P. 2017. Expert Internet Searching. 5th edition. London: Facet Publishing.

Private search engines

Social media and images

Misc. search engines