Web Witchin’: Online Research Rules

use-your-noodleIn my daily life, I teach (big shocker there), and I show students how to use Good Research Behavior.  It occurs to me now that this is worth reproducing in a pagan context because wow, there is a lot of information out there.  Good, bad, ugly, and all over!

Many of you are old salts at finding information across multiple media, but if you’re not, here’s some rules to help you:


Rule the first:  Know how the internet works

Search Engines:

Google is not the internet.  The internet is not magic.

Google itself is so popular because it has an unholy amount of investments and makes an equally unholy amount of profit (she says as she uses Google docs to type this….on her…Mac….).  This is not a problem because they are a business, not a utility like a library.  They don’t have to adhere to the same standards, they must be free, fast, and easy.

I harp on Google because to my students, the internet is Google is the internet.  The search engine has become so widespread, so useful that for them (often) nothing exists outside of it.  Not entirely so….

There are other search engines out there.  I’ve been trying DuckDuckGo with some success.  Bing and Yahoo search are just not doing it for me.  But be aware that there is more than one way to search.

Also, depending on what you are searching for (history, folklore, etc) you may want to stick to .edu websites.  But, since so much in this area is a labor of love or cottage industry, .com or even blogs can have good information, so don’t discount them automatically.

Key words:

Googling “witchcraft” is going to get you a tremendous amount of material.  Not all of it will have any bearing to your search due to SEO.

SEO is search engine optimization, a method of inserting key words into text which allows search engines to sniff out that particular page faster.  People can and do manipulate these (hell I’ve done it!) to drive traffic to their sites.  This is the nature of the beast.  But what not all key words are created equal.

For instance, a page talking about Frank Sinatra’s song “Witchcraft” may pop up in the middle of a highschooler’s blog, alongside that of a crabby educator.  Which witch is which?

It is far more useful to search with a phrase.  “Witchcraft” is too broad but “Dianic Witchcraft in the 1980s” may net you something better.  Get it….net you?

Boolean operators

What on earth are these?  As the library of University At Albany (NY) shows us, “Boolean Operators are used to connect and define the relationship between your search terms. When searching electronic databases, you can use Boolean operators to either narrow or broaden your record sets [Lax note: that’s the results]. The three Boolean operators are AND, OR and NOT.”

Boolean operators are how you link your key words together.  While Google and other search engines have somewhat evolved beyond these into recognizing Normal Human Speech, boolean operators can be very useful for libraries and other databases you may have access to.

For example:

Wicca AND Gender OR Feminism

Herbalism OR essential oils NOT aromatherapy


Rule the second:  Research questions

There are two tiers of research as I see it:  casual/initial, such as cruising Wikipedia or Google for factual info and then there is intensive/purposeful, such as looking for scholarly articles, comparing sources, etc.

If you want to go from the first to the second, it helps to have a research question in mind. This is similar to using key words effectively.  If you want to find something out, you will have to phrase it in a way that will help you get the info you want, not what will get tons of results.

A research question is a way of distilling your desired material into an easy to handle phrase.  Those of you who labored through freshman comp will remember this.

“Celtic” is not a research question, it is the informational equivalent of leaving the front door open in a storm.  You will get many things you don’t need.

“Celtic culture” is also not a research question – that’s pretty much closing just the screen door.

“What is the origin of Celtic culture?” is far better.


The reason I am going into formulating research questions here is because pagans are a pretty techie bunch and there is just so much material out there.  From actual pagan documents, history, commentary to pagan-adjacent things like archaeology, folklore, handicrafts….it gets overwhelming.

If you want to learn a specific thing about your own tradition, group, or related topic, you will need a research question, maybe even a series of them.  This allows you to pull out key words and phrases to search with so you’re not pounding the same syllables over and over and coming up empty.

This school has a great lib(rary) guide for history.  The databases are student and faculty only, but the front page shows how a research question can be formulated (though it is written for someone trying to write a research paper, though)

Rule the Third: Judge ye!

Evaluating sources

Middlesex County College does such a great job of listing points for evaluation of sources, so I’m not going to list them here, but link you:  English and Literature: Other Resources (Website Evaluation)

Their history guide has a useful little nugget about discriminating between types of resource: History: Primary Vs. Secondary Sources

What company does this resource keep?

Something else to keep in mind, especially in this subject area, is that not everyone is good people.  Some branches of paganism are very attractive to racists, misogynists, and predatory scum.  When you find a resource, writer, name in the field, etc. – investigate before you trust it.  Look at the company they keep:  google names, click links all over the site – what neighborhood is this in?  Where is it directing traffic (by which I mean what is it linking to?)

Sometimes assholes sound good, look good (ahem), and throw around Big Words and Useful Concepts.  But assholes are ultimately assholes.  Don’t give them the time of day.

CAORANN: Celts Against Oppression, Racism, and Neo-N*zism has a great write up about recognizing and avoiding racism in Celtic Circles

The Southern Poverty Law Center is invaluable in identifying, describing, and cataloging known racist groups in the US

Various spectrums of sexuality are welcome in pagan communities – unfortunately, predation will follow not because the open are wrong, but because predators are optimists.  Arm yourself with knowledge, trust  your gut, and don’t countenance sexist/predatory bullshit, no matter how big the name or well-kept the website:  Pagan Activist: Sex, Ethics, and Paganism

How much hustle do you want to accept?

At Day Job, Inc. I admonish students to not use commercial sources.  If someone is trying to make money on that site, hie thee hither to the safety of Google Scholar or our school’s library site.  For their purposes, I’m trying to keep them out of joeschmoe.com type websites that may or may not contain accurate material.  But for you out there, things are different.

It’s not a secret that pagan authors, makers/crafters, etc. are generally trying to make money at the same time they discuss or demonstrate their beliefs.  The same goes for academics and researchers – the economy is not kind to scholars.  Because there are so many people doing such a good job with info  AND running a Patreon or selling their books or vending their wares – I’m not judging.  Until we can get our act together and start living in the Federation, we’re going to have to make money.

Therefore I’d like to not caution you but ask you – how much hustle are you ok with?  Personally, if I go to the blog of a writer, I’m going to expect them to be selling *something*.  I anticipate pagan and pagan-adjacent scholars to have their car boots open.  This is literally on a blog I will periodically sell things from!!!

But I look for proportion:  If I want to rely on this person’s work as a resource, and recommend it to others it had better have a majority of useful searchable content.  If every single paragraph links to a storefront or in a Patreon/other funding link, I scoot.  One has to make money, but if I see an excessive amount of hawking, that tells me that person’s priorities are driving traffic to their site and making sales.  It is not a resource with a side biz, it is a business with blurbs.


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