A search engine is a program that explores the
Internet. Like an engine in the physical world, all
you have to do to make a search engine work is fire it
up. And how well the search engine performs depends
on what you put into it. You use the words you are
looking for as the "fuel," and you can make your
engine run more smoothly by using specific phrases
that limit or expand your search. The engine then
looks for your word or phrase in different parts of
the Internet's various databases, directories,
documents, and page headings.
Hundreds of search sites are out there.
Altavista (www.altavista.com), Lycos
(www.lycos.com), Webcrawler (www.webcrawler.com),
Dogpile (www.dogpile.com), and Hotbot
(www.hotbot.com) are a few popular ones that spring to mind.
Many other more obscure search engines also exist for
the government or specific interest groups.
Know Thy Search Engine
Some engines search certain areas of the
Internet well, such as personal home pages, news sites, or
auctions. Some search broader categories, such as
every music or library site. I've even seen a search
engine search site. Others search limited areas _ the
information stored on the owner's hard drives. So far, no
engine adequately searches the whole Internet. The
last I heard, Hotbot held the lead with roughly 51
percent coverage of the roughly 8 trillion pages out
there (including the million new pages created in the
Just because a page lets you search for
something, that doesn't automatically make it a search
engine. Some search sites use a technical term called a
spider to crawl through the Internet trying to scoop up
what you need and bring it back. These sites are
referred to as engines. Others, called directories, rely on
the skills of the site's employees and the users to
collect and organize information about all sorts of pages
and places in their networks and put it into a
database. When you are searching for something in a
directory, the site's software looks through its structure until
it finds what you need. And here's a bit of
Internet trivia: even though many people consider
Yahoo! (www.yahoo.com) to be a search engine, technically it is
a massive directory organized by category.
Oh, How They've Changed
Still with me? Let me tell you how things have changed in the past three years. Previously, it
didn't really matter which search site you went to, the
environment always looked similar. The engine had
a prompt where you typed in the keywords you
wanted to search for. Then you had a long wait while the
engine scoured the Internet for your request. Next,
lots of time was spent wading through thousands of
unrelated sites until you found what you really wanted.
If you were computer savvy, you could throw in a couple of secret words like "only," "not," "and,"
or "or" to modify the search.
These days, search pages have become one-stop shopping centers. Users can not only search for
information, they also can see what's in the news,
what auctions are happening that day, how stocks are
doing, what the weather is, what other search
engines are turning up, and sign up for goodies like free
e-mail. Today's searches are also generally easier
to manage and many have more refinement options. You can choose the amount of requests you
need, how much information you need about each
listing, or which words you don't want included.
You can still do all the tricks you used to do,
but luckily you don't have to remember the secret
words "not" "only" or "or" anymore. A simple "+" or
"_" will do.
Happily enough, my favorite search trick hasn't stopped workingputting quotes around what
you are looking for. This technique makes the search
engine look for the entire phrase in quotes in that
particular order, rather than looking for those
words anywhere. For example, you get far different results
if you type "James Bond" in quotes rather than
just James Bond. The first option gives you only the
sites related to the secret agent, whereas the second
choice looks for any site with the word
James or the word Bond in it. You could spend days weeding
through pages about stocks and bonds, ropes and bonds,
denture bond, the works of Henry James, James and
the Giant Peach, and so forth. So remember to use
What I've enjoyed seeing recently are fuzzy
logic searches. Fuzzy logic is a new buzzword that
means the engine guesses at what you want. This
technique involves higher math and physics that makes my
head hurt. (There's a reason I was journalism major.)
With fuzzy logic searches, you can type your
information request as a question. For example, you
can type "I want to find out the name of Ariel's sisters
in The Little Mermaid. (Yes, it's a real question I
needed the answer to the other day don't ask.)
A few years ago, a similar search would have looked for all 14 words, unless you were
gutsy enough to enter some arcane formula like
"Little Mermaid" and Disney not ariel (only sisters).
Then you'd get 10 million sites, everything from
mermaid porn to Disney haters. Or you could do it the
hard way by looking through Disney's site
(disney.com) until you found what you needed.
However, to find out about Ariel's sisters, the
first thing I did was Ask Jeeves (askjeeves.com).
This search service (a hybrid people-driven engine)
accepts your entry and filters out any potentially
useless/unneeded words. The first words to go will
be the phrase, "I want to find out the name of" so
the engine ends up looking for only "The Little
Mermaid" and "sisters" not "Ariel".
Then the magic happensJeeves comes up
with 10 guesses of sites that might help you. Is it
"Hans Christian Anderson statues?" No. Is it "Stan's
Mermaid Love Site?" No! Is it "Triton's Family
Tree from Disney's Film The Little Mermaid?"
Not every search is that easy, so Jeeves also
includes plenty of "related sites containing some
of these words."
If you're new to the Internet, I recommend you visit the various search sites until you find one
you like. Choosing a search engine comes down to
personal preference. You can find out how best to
use just about particular engine by clicking the
Advanced Search or Search Help area of your favorite
site. These areas can usually be found next to every
site's main search box.
Also, consider using two or three engines for a search. Because no engine adequately searches
the whole Web, the odds are that each engine will cast
its net in different parts of the Web. And no one cares
if you visit two or three sites until you find exactly
what you want.