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

Historical Search Engine Information -- Our In-Depth Analysis of Popular Search Engines, circa 1996-98

Important Note:  This page is outdated.  Several of these search engines no longer exist or are no longer used as much as they used to be.  The rankings below are from the 1996-98 time period. 

We are leaving the page up for historical purposes only -- some researchers are interested in the history of web search engines.


Alta Vista is a fast, powerful search engine with enough bells and whistles to do an extremely complex search, but first you have to master all its options.  If you're serious about Web searching, however, mastering Alta Vista is a wise policy.

Type of search: Keyword

Search options: Simple or Advanced search, search refining.

Domains searched: Web, Usenet

Search refining: Boolean "AND," "OR" and "NOT," plus the proximal locator "NEAR." Allows wildcards and "backwards" searching (i.e., you can find all the other web sites that link to another page). You can decide how search terms should be weighed, and where in the document to look for them.  Powerful search refining tools, and the more refining you do, the better your results are.

Relevance ranking: Ranks according to how many of your search terms a page contains, where in the document, and how close to one another the search terms are.

Results presented as: First several lines of document.  "Detailed" summaries don't appear any more detailed than "standard" ones.

User interface: Reasonably good, but not very friendly to the casual user. Advanced query now allows you to further refine your search at the end of each results page.  You can also visit specialized zones or channels in areas like finance, travel, news.

Help files: Complete, but confusing.  Too much thrown at you at once.  More clarity and more explanation of options would be appreciated!

Good points: Fast searches, capitalization and proper nouns recognized, largest database; finds things others don't.  Alta Vista searches both the Web and Usenet.  It will search on both words and on phrases, including names and titles. You can even search to discover how many people have linked their site to yours.   You can also have the resulting pages of your searches translated into several other languages.

Bad points: Multiple pages from the same site show up too frequently; some curious relevancy rankings, especially on Simple search.

Overall Rating: A-



Spidap Tidbits--Did you know this? America Online  made a deal with Excite, giving AOL a share in the company and making Excite AOL's partner and official search engine. In fact, AOL is now using the Excite engine as their proprietary AOL search engine, accessible both from within the AOL network and via the Web. Check out AOL's NetFind.

Excite bills itself as the "intelligent" search engine because of its concept-based indexing. While "intelligent" is an exaggeration (the apparent intelligence comes from the clever use of statistics, not from a sudden advance in artificial intelligence), Excite is one of our favorite search tools.  

Type of search:  Both concept and keyword

Search options:  Simple, refined

Domains searched:  Web, Usenet and classified ads

Search refining:  Suggests you use more words, repeating key choices several times. Uses a fuzzy AND, which searches AND and OR, giving preference to AND.  Has recently added Boolean operators to aid in search refining--AND, OR, AND NOT, and the characters + and -.

Relevance ranking:  Confidence percentile provided on all searches, derivation unclear.

Results returned in:  Summaries; will also sort them by site.  By clicking on an icon beside each summary, you will get a cross-reference of similar sites.

User interface:  Generally good, nothing exciting.

Help files:  Very good, including a handbook that explains the site, the Web, the software, and how best to use their site.

Good points:  Large index. Not quite as up-to-date as it used to be. Excellent summaries, which they admit are actually highlights--the top few most important sentences in the document.  You can view your hits in various ways, too--grouped by confidence or grouped by Web site.

Bad points:  Does not specify the format or the size in megabytes of the hits it returns, nor does it tell you upfront exactly how many hits there are.

Overall rating: B


Type of search: Keyword

Search options: Simple, but powerful (see comments below).  Infoseek now uses the Ultraseek engine, which really zips along. The site has added an extensive catalogue section for subject-oriented searching.  You can also cross-reference your search terms with similar catalogue subject items and searches come back with subjects automatically appended. You can also search images, which seems to be popular suddenly.

Domains searched: Web, Usenet, Usenet FAQs, Reviews, Topics. 

Search refining:  Phrases, capitalization, no Boolean operators, but uses + and - instead (similar to AND and NOT).

Relevance ranking: Gives numerical scores based on frequency and comparison to words already in their database.

Results presented as: First 30-100 words of the page

User interface: Good, easy to use, clear.  Infoseek is also now allowing free searches of some of its extensive databases (stock quotes, company information, e-mail addresses, various reference works like dictionaries and zip code directories).

Help files: Good, useful.

Good points:  Fast, flexible, reliable searching. Good output, which gives the URL, the size of the document and the relevancy score.  Allows you to see similar pages (based on topic information about the pages).  Full-text indexing, allows capital letters and phrases.  

Bad points:  We're sure Infoseek has some bad points, but we really can't think of any offhand!

Overall Rating: A-


Type of search: Keyword, but Lycos is gradually becoming less of a search engine, it seems, and more of a Yahoo-like subject index.  Has recently had a cool graphical facelift. Proud of its ability to search on image and sound files.

Search options: Basic orAdvanced

Domains searched: Web, Usenet, News, Stocks, Weather, Mult-media.

Search refining : Lycos now has full Boolean capabilities (using choices on drop-down forms).

Relevance ranking: Lycos no longer provides a relevancy ranking.

Results presented as: First 100 or so words in simple search, you choose in advanced search--summary, full results or short version.

User interface: Clean, clear, focuses more on directory now than on simple search.

Help files: Good, informative, graphical help screens are easy to understand.

Good points: Large database.  Comprehensive results given--i.e., the date of the document, its size, etc.  Lycos indexes the frequency with which documents are linked to by other documents to make sure the most popular web sites are found and indexed before the less popular ones.

Overall Rating:  B+


Spidap Tidbits--Did You Know This? AOL owns Webcrawler, but AOL's new deal with Excite means that the Webcrawler search engine and directory will be incorporated into Excite.

Type of search: Keyword

Search options: Simple, refined

Search options: Domains searched: Web, Usenet

Search refining : Uses either "and" or "any."  Webcrawler has added full Boolean search term capability, including AND, OR, AND NOT, ADJ, (adjacent) and NEAR.

Relevance ranking: Yes--frequency calculated--computes the total number of times your keywords appear in the document and divides it by the total number of words in the document.  Webcrawler returns surprisingly relevant results.

Results presented as: lists of hyperlinks or summaries, as the user chooses.

User interface: Good--easy and fun to use

Help files: Useful tips and FAQ.

Good points:  Easy to use.  Popular on the Web because it belongs to AOL and there are a lot of websurfers who sign on from AOL.  Publishes usage statistics on their site.  Also provides a service by which you can check to see whether a particular URL is in their index, and, if so, when it was last visited by their "spider."  There is also some fascinating information about how Webcrawler's search strategy works.

Bad points: Speed seems to be slowing down a little recently. Its previous weakness--no way to refine search--has been eliminated with the addition of Boolean operators.

Overall Rating: B-


Type of search: Keyword

Search options: Simple, Modified, Expert

Domains searched: Web

Search refining: Multiple types, including by phrase, person and Boolean-like choices in pull-down boxes. No proximal operators at present. In Expert searches you can search by date and even by different media types (Java, Javascript, Shockwave, VRML, etc.).

Relevance ranking: Yes.  Methods used--search terms in the title will be ranked higher search terms in the text. Frequency also counts, and will result in higher rankings when search terms appears more frequently in short documents than when they appear frequently in very long documents. (This sounds sensible and useful).

Results presented as: Relevancy score and URL

User interface: Very cool and lively. Some users have complained about the bright green background, but we kinda like it.

Help files: A FAQ that answers users' questions, but not a lot of serious help files.

Good points: Claims to be fast because of the use of parallel processing, which distributes the load of queries as well as the database over several work stations.  

Bad points: Some limitations still on Boolean operators, and the help files still aren't very good. 

Overall Rating: B


Although not precisely a search engine site, Yahoo is an important Web resource.  It works as an hierarchical subject index, allowing you to drill down from the general to the specific.  Yahoo is an attempt to organize and catalogue the Web.

Yahoo also has search capabilities.  You can search the Yahoo index (note: when you do this you are not searching the entire Web).  If your query gets no hits in this manner, Yahoo offers you the option of searching the Alta Vista, which does search the entire Web.

Yahoo will also automatically feed your query into the other major search engine sites if you so desire.  Thus, Yahoo has the capacity to act as a kind of meta-search engine.

Type of search:  Keyword

Search options:  Simple, Advanced

Domains searched: Yahoo's index, Usenet, E-mail addresses.  Yahoo searches titles, URLs and the brief comments or descriptions of the Web sites Yahoo indexes.

Search refining:  Boolean AND and OR.  Yahoo is case insensitive.

Relevance ranking:  Since Yahoo returns relatively few hits (it will never return more than 100), it's not clear how results are ranked.

Results presented as:  Yahoo tells you the category where a hit is found, then gives you a two-line description of the site.

User interface:  Excellent, easy-to-use

Help files:  Not very complete, but since there aren't a lot of search options, detailed help files are not necessary.

Good points:  Easy-to-navigate subject catalogue.  If you know what you want to find, Yahoo should be your first stop on the Web.

Bad points:  Only a small portion of the Web has actually been catalogued by Yahoo.

Overall rating: A (This rating refers simply to Yahoo's quality as a directory--searches of the entire Web are not possible).


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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