Search Engine FAQ

Search Engine Ranking Algorithms

Search strategy

How Search Engines Work

Search Wizard

Search the Web

Search This Website

How to Find Info about People on the Web

Historical Info on Search Engines 

Top Page















































How To Use Web Search Engines
Tips on using internet search sites  like Google, alltheweb, and Yahoo.


Page 3--How To Plan The Best Search Strategy

The Web is potentially a terrific place to get information on almost any topic.  Doing research without leaving your desk sounds like a great idea, but all too often you end up wasting precious time chasing down useless URLs.  Almost everyone agrees that there's gotta be a better way!  But for now we're stuck with making the best use of the search tools that already exist on the Web.

It's important to give some thought to your search strategy.  Are you just beginning to amass knowledge on a fairly broad subject? Or do you have a specific objective in mind--like finding out everything you can about carpal tunnel syndrome, or the e-mail address of your old college roommate?

If you're more interested in broad, general information, the first place to go is to a Web Directory.  If you're after narrow, specific information, a Web search engine is probably a better choice.

Interesting in finding information about people (friends, classmates, public figures) on the Web?  We have some advice for you on that subject.

Searching by Means of Subject Directories

Think back to the library card catalogue analogy.  In the old card files, and even in today's computer terminal library catalogues, you find information by searching on either the author, the title, or the subject.  You usually choose the subject option when you want to cover a broad range of information.

Example:  You'd like to create your own home page on the Web, but you don't know how to write HTML, you've never created a graphic file, and you're not sure how you'd post a page on the Web even if you knew how to write one.   In short, you need a lot of information on a rather broad topic--Web publishing.

Your best bet is not a search engine, but a Web directory like the Open Directory ProjectGoogle Directory or  Yahoo.  A directory is a subject-tree style catalogue that organizes the Web into major topics, including Arts, Business and Economy, Computers and Internet, Education, Entertainment, Government, Health, News, Recreation, Reference, Regional, Science, Social Science, Society and Culture.  Under each of these topics is a list of subtopics, and under each of those is another list, and another, and so on, moving from the more general to the more specific.

Example: To find out about Web page publishing from Yahoo, select the Computers and Internet Topic, under which you find a subtopic on the Wide World Web. Click on that and you find another list of subtopics, several of which are pertinent to your search: Web Page Authoring, CGI Scripting, Java, HTML, Page Design, Tutorials.  Selecting any of these subtopics eventually takes you to Web pages that have been posted precisely for the purpose of giving you the information you need.

If you are clear about the topic of your query, start with a Web directory rather than a search engine.  Directories probably won't give you anywhere near as many references as a search engine will, but they are more likely to be on topic.  

Web directories usually come equipped with their own keyword search engines that allow you to search through their indices for the information you need.

Important note:  Search engines and  Web directories are being integrated in interesting ways.    For example, if you use the Google search engine and one of the results happens to be found in the Google's Directory (which is based on the dmoz directory), Google will offer you a link to that section of the directory. Meanwhile, if you conduct your search in the Google directory, Google will order the results according to PageRank, which is   Google's all-important measure of  “link popularity.” 

Searching by Means of Search Engines

This is where things start to get complicated.
Search engines are trickier than they look!  You'll discover this the first time you enter a query on C++, the programming language.  At least of the Web search engines will essentially say, "Huh?"

C++ is not a word.  It's a letter followed by two characters that might, depending on the index, be regarded merely as punctuation.  Many text search engines have trouble handling input of this type.  Many don't deal too well with numbers, either.  So much for "007," "R2D2,"or "Catch-22."

Important Note:  This problem is no longer as bad as it used to be.  I'm now finding relevant hits for C++ on a majority of search engines sites.

Here's another example of a text string search engines hate:  To be or not to be.  Just about anyone who finished junior high school will be able to tell you where the phrase comes from and (possibly!) what it means.  But some search engines choke because all the words in the phrase are stop words--i.e., unimportant words too short and too common to be considered relevant strings on which to search.   However, if you enclose the query in quotation marks, forcing the search engine to find the words, "to be or not to be" in that precise order, most search engines can  recognize the phrase as a famous quotation from Hamlet.

Let's take a less obvious example.  Suppose you're a fan of murder mysteries and you want to search the Web for the home pages of all your favorite authors in that genre.  If you simply enter the words "mystery" and "writer," most search engines will return hyperlinks to all Web documents that contain the word "mystery" or the word, "writer."  This will probably include hundreds--or even thousands--of URLs, most of which will have no relevance to your search. If you enter the words as a phrase, however, you stand a better chance of getting some good hits.

However, as search technology advances, this is not as much of a problem as it was a couple of years ago. Many search engines will now automatically apply the "adjacency" operator when responding to a two-word query. This means that they will indeed look for documents in which your two words appear next to each other.

If you understand how search engines organize information and run queries, you can maximize your chances of getting hits on URLs that matter.

Next:  Find out  How Search Engines Work


Spidap, Top Page

Contact Us


The Spider's Apprentice was conceived and written by Linda Barlow, who maintains this site for Monash Information Services. Copyright 1996-2004. All rights reserved. Updated: 05/11/04