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

Page 5--The Web-Search Wizard

Ready to apply all that info about querying, indexing, search refining and relevancy ranking?  Good!  This page should help you search more effectively even if you didn't read everything else on this site.

The Key to Successful Searching:  Remember, you are smarter than a computer. Use your intelligence.  Search engines are fast, but dumb.  

A search engine's ability to understand what you want is very limited.  It will obediently look for occurrences of your keywords all over the Web, but it doesn't understand what your keywords mean or why they're important to you. To a search engine, a keyword is just a string of characters.  It doesn't know the difference between cancer the crab and cancer the disease...and it doesn't care.

But you know what you query means (at least, we hope you do!).  Therefore, you must supply the brains.  The search engine will supply the raw computing power.  

The principles of Smart Searching:

1. Know Where To Look First

Are you looking for information about a person?  A company?  A software product? A health-related problem?  Do you want to find a job?  Get a date? Plan a vacation?  Do you need to research a term paper?  Document a news story? Size up your company's competition?

There are various databases containing specific information that might be more useful to you than a general search engine.  

2. Fine-tune your keywords

If you're searching on a noun (the name of a person, place or thing), remember that most nouns are subsets of other nouns.  Enter the smallest possible subset that describes what you want.  Be specific.  Try to meet the search engine halfway by refining your search before you begin.

Example:  If you want to buy a car, don't enter the keyword "car" if you can enter the keyword "Toyota."  Better still, enter the phrase "Toyota Dealerships" AND the name of the city where you live.

3. Be Refined

Read the help files and take advantage of the available search refining options.  Use phrases, if possible.  Use the Boolean AND (or the character +) to include other keywords that you would expect to find in relevant documents.  

Also learn to EXCLUDE with the Boolean NOT.  Excluding is particularly important as the Web grows and more documents are posted.  Run your initial query over again several times, each time adding further refinements to narrow down your list of relevant hits.

Example:  If you want to find out how medical details about your grandmother's diagnosis of Alzheimer's Disease, try entering "Alzheimer's" AND "symptoms" AND "prognosis."  If you want to find out about Alzheimer's care and community resources, query on "Alzheimer's" AND "support groups" AND "resources" AND NOT "symptoms."

4. Query by example

Take advantage of the option that many search engine sites are now offering: you can "query by example," or "find similar sites," to the ones that come up on your initial hit list.  Essentially what you're doing is telling the search engine, "yes, this looks promising, give me more like this one."

5.  Anticipate the answers

Before searching, try to imagine what the ideal page you would like to access would look like.  Think about the words its title would contain.  Think about what words would be in the first couple of sentences of a webpage that you would consider useful.  Use those words, or that phrase, when you enter your query.

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For more great information on search engines, check out this terrific site: Search Engine Watch.

The Spider's Apprentice was conceived and written by Linda Barlow, who maintains this site for Monash Information Services.
Updated: 05/11/04   Copyright, 1996-2004, Monash Information Services. All rights reserved. To discuss permission to re-use any of our material, or to translate into other languages, contact Linda Barlow at the above e-mail address.