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Lost in Cyberspace

Searching Smarter Online


by Debra Borchert

You've been called to an emergency meeting in an hour, and you're responsible for doing some quick research. If you're proficient in searching the World Wide Web, you'll impress everyone with your knowledge. But if you're still figuring out search engines, your associates and the opportunity to advance your career will pass you by.

A recent study by the NEC Research Institute and the search technology company, Inktomi, verified that the Web now includes more than 1 billion unique pages. That's a lot of sifting if you don't have good search tools. Most of us use the search engine that automatically appears on our home page--it's most convenient. But that engine might not be the best for your needs.

The Web is the best way to keep your finger on the pulse of your competitors. If you develop your Web searching techniques, know how to refine the parameters of the information you're looking for, and use search engines that cater to your personal style, you'll save time and your results will be more accurate and rewarding.

What’s Your Style? 
Do you like to ask a simple question and get a simple answer, are you a data junkie, satisfied only when no stone is left unturned, or are you literal and specific in your thoughts?

There are three prevalent types of search engines: those based on natural language questions--for people who want to keep their requests simple; meta searchers--for people looking for a wealth of information on one subject; and engines based on search and analysis technologies--for people who want to refine their search as they go.

Keep It Simple
Ask.com, which searches using natural language, is the home of Jeeves, your personal Web butler, who prefers that you ask questions in your own words. Type "Who invented Post-it Notes?" and you'll receive matches listed by relevancy to your question. You can then choose the most appropriate listing or ask for sales history. Realnames.com, another natural language engine, helps you find official corporate Web sites for which the URLs might not always be true to the name of the company. Ask for United Airlines, for example, and you'll immediately be sent to Ual.com.

Bulk Results
If you're looking for quantity, metasearch engines such as Inferencefind.com and Savvysearch.com can save you hours of searching by making parallel calls to sites such as WebCrawler, Yahoo, Lycos, AltaVista, InfoSeek, and Excite. A metasearch engine will scour these popular search engines simultaneously, remove duplicates, and cluster the results into logical and relevant groupings from just one request. Just be prepared to receive more matches than you know what to do with.

Do It Yourself
According to MediaMetrix, the five most visited search engines are Yahoo, Go.com, Lycos, Excite, and AltaVista, which allow you to search and analyze. If you like to refine and focus your searches to deliver only the most pertinent information, you'll need to master the search capabilities of at least three of your favorite engines. Only by trial and error will you determine which engines are the most accurate for you.

Searching for Time
Knowing the way to include and exclude search terms is as important as knowing what you're looking for. By both adding and eliminating key words, you'll reduce your search time and the amount of irrelevant information you receive. Based on Boolean technology, which enables engines to understand your requests, this quick list of searching tips will help when you need facts fast:

And: Use the word "AND" (all caps) or the "+" symbol to add key words. If you want stories on inventors AND Post-it Notes, you'll eliminate inventors of hula hoops.

Not: Use the word "NOT" (all caps) or the "-" symbol to reduce your findings. If you want stories on Clinton but NOT Hillary, your results will be limited to the President.

Or: Using another word to further describe a keyword will increase the return. If you want all the sites for automobiles, type "car OR auto."

Combinations: Using AND in conjunction with OR eliminates duplicate searches. Type "Car OR Auto AND Rental" for all sites devoted to vehicle leasing.

Quotes: Use quotation marks to narrow your request. The engine will automatically multiply your one request by searching on each term and delivering only those sites that contain all of your words. By placing "Hewlett Packard Laser Printer Cartridges" in quotes, you'll get only that company's products.

Controlling Your Search
Most search engines appear with defaults that the engine determines to be most popular. Be thorough in checking what's being searched or you might not receive what you intended. For example, Yahoo's engine will automatically search Yahoo categories, not all Web sites, unless you change the default search area. Many search engines offer advanced tools for more control. Common choices are date ranges, categories, Web sites within different countries, and languages.

Northern Light allows searches limited to specific sites, such as the military. Excite allows you to exclude adult content, but you'll have to choose that option--it's not a default.

But I Only Want ...
Customized search engines allow you to search within a specific category. SearchEdu.com indexes more than 20 million college and university pages. Need a government agency? Use SearchGov.com. And if you're tired of looking for correct spellings in that huge book on your desk, search Dictionary.com. You can even check out Roget's Thesaurus while you're there, and you can translate your text into foreign languages. The most popular search engines have Yellow and White Page directories to find businesses and people around the world.

Whatever search engines you choose, be sure you're armed with the tips that save time and target your results. Only then can you can rate their relative accuracy and speed. Once you do, you'll harness the most powerful research tool available to professionals today.

-- by Debra Borchert

As an expert on the social changes brought about by Internet technologies, Debra Borchert's articles have appeared on numerous Web sites and in national publications including The New York Times.









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