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Search engines (sometimes) find the stuff

Search engines (sometimes) find the stuff

With all the websites out there specifically designed for the engineering community, it came as somewhat of a surprise to me to learn that our readers rank general search engines right up there among their favorite sites. That's according to a study of Design News readers' Internet surfing habits conducted by Cahners Research in July 2001.

"Well organized, provides the information I need" and "Simple and fast" were just two of the rave comments from readers, who report that they use search engines like Google and AltaVista regularly.

A blessing and a curse: Because fo the large number of pages they search, general search engines are often good tools to use when looking for specific information. The downside -- much of the information isn't relevant.

Maybe I shouldn't be so surprised. I frequently use search engines to conduct my research. But given my own hit-or-miss experiences, my curiosity was piqued: How successful would I be in using a general search engine to come up with an answer to a specific technical question that an engineer might ask?

So I decided to invest some time on a Sunday afternoon to find out. I even had a real topic to investigate, courtesy of a Design News reader who subscribes to one of our e-mail newsletters and was looking for help. The question he posed is as follows:

"Many years ago I saw a scientific demonstration of a new thermal insulation technology on TV. A laboratory rat was put into a bag made out of this material, which was immersed in boiling water. The rat experienced no ill effects. Can anyone suggest what this material is and who makes it?"

That begs the question, "What sort of weird application does this guy have in mind?" But that's a whole other story.

I went to Google (my particular favorite search engine) and typed in "thermal insulation bag" as keywords. My initial strategy is to go for keywords that are fairly specific, but not too specific. In other words I cast my net pretty wide-at least at the beginning.

Up popped over ten pages of links to websites with information on the thermal insulation properties of sleeping bags, lunch bags, and of course lots of boilers and pipes. Nothing here seemed too relevant, unless possibly you're planning a hiking trip up Mount Washington.

Next, I tried "thermal insulation bag high temperature." Same stuff on sleeping bags, hiking gear, building insulation, etc.-no surprises here. Although the additional keywords did bring up a smattering of links referencing ceramic materials, nothing appeared to relate to rats in bags. Trying various combinations of "bag, insulation material," and "high temperature" turned up pretty much the same junk.

Just for fun, I added "rat" to the mix. This got me one link to notes from a conference on insect and fungus management that mentioned "roof rats" and an abstract titled Mammals I and II with a reference to "giant rats." Pretty interesting stuff, actually-which is precisely one of my problems when I search the web. I get distracted when I come across websites that have nothing to do with my primary mission, but have some other interesting tidbits of information. I refrained from clicking on the link that included the phrase "rat boy."

Wait, the guy mentioned "mylar," right? Out went rat, in went mylar. A ha, maybe I was getting somewhere. I now had a link to the website, where I found information on metallized mylar aircraft insulation blankets. And mylar cooking bags now appeared in the mix (except we don't want to actually cook the rat, do we?).

Clearly, I was peering down the wrong mousehole, so to speak. I contemplated taking a completely different tack, thinking to myself, "What are some of the uses for materials that provide insulation against high temperatures?" The "Shake-n-Bake" insulation tents used by firefighters out West came to mind.

I typed in "fire protection clothing mylar" and hit pay dirt-sort of. I now had a deep link to an area on Dupont's website with information on mylar films and protective clothing. And there was another link to a technical paper that cited several heat and fire-resistant materials, including mylar-coated Durafab, aluminized mylar, and geopolymer-a lightweight, nonflammable fabric laminate based on an alumina-silica composite-and two materials with the trade names Solvex and Prevail.

After about an hour's worth of hunting, I had came up with enough names of insulating materials to give our reader some more relevant keywords to search on. From here, he should be able to locate specific manufacturers' websites and obtain materials properties data. Who knows? One of them may meet his specific needs.

Many probably won't. A look at Kimberly-Clark's information on Prevail, for example, revealed that it is a fabric used in products for incontinence. Such is the way of the web.

Given the limitations of general search engines-the dependence on the right choice of keywords, lack of real navigational tools, and reliance, frankly, on luck-I think I did okay. Granted, my search was pretty rudimentary. I didn't use any advanced search capabilities or try multiple search engines, which likely would have helped me obtain better results.

One way I am able to improve the quality of my searches is by using word associations. Trying the keywords "fire protection" instead of "thermal insulation" seemed to at least get me into the right class of materials, though I didn't really have enough information on what properties our reader is actually looking for. Clearly, the more data and information one has at the start of the search (the name of the TV show featuring the rat demonstration, for example), the greater the variety of keywords that can be tried and word associations can be made.

But, frankly, I'm still intrigued about that rat demonstration. Real story or urban legend? A quick search on the keywords "folklore rat boiling water" garnered a recounting of the famous Kentucky fried rat urban legend, pictures included! I also found a website debunking the myth that lobsters "scream" when they are dropped into boiling water.

But I'm just betting you haven't heard the one about the Mexican Pet/Sewer Rat. Check it out at

Top five search engines of engineers
Rank Search Engine Comments
1 Google "Good, generic search engine"
2 AltaVista "Gets me there, everytime so far"
3 Dogpile "Quickly searches many engines"
4 HotBot "Gives me the best info, fastest"
5 Northern Light "Great engine, lots of hits for technology"
Source: Engineers and the Internet Study, Cahners Research 7/01
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