Search engines enlighten users

May 1, 1997
Richard G. Ensman Jr.
Pharmaceutical Representative

Finding your way around the World Wide Web.

If you've wandered around the World Wide Web for any length of time, you know that this Internet resource is enormous in size and scope. The Web is an overflowing collection of millions of different sites, ranging from simple to complex.

You learn early on that it's not always easy to find what you're looking for on the Web. Hunt for information on a particular topic, and you might spend hours in a fruitless search or become tangled in a "cyberjourney" that produces nuggets of information alongside piles of junk.

Here's where search engines come in. Search engines, in their simplest form, attempt to catalog or index some part of the Web (or in the case of the large engines, most of the Web). Some search engines catalog other Internet resources as well. If used properly, search engines make the Web easier to navigate.

While many computer users liken search engines to the old-fashioned card catalogs in libraries, the analogy isn't correct. Each search engine - and there are a lot of them - categorizes information in a unique manner and searches the Web differently. What makes things even more complex is that search engines, like the Web itself, are constantly changing in format and scope.

While trial and error is still a good way to familiarize yourself with the capabilities of search engines, use these suggestions to help you master the search process:


•Â Use the forms. Most engines offer simple and advanced search capabilities. The easiest way to begin a search is to use the fill-in-the-blank form present on an engine's home page.


•Â Think about your search terms before starting. You can conduct a search on any word or phase you want. A few engines even allow you to conduct a natural language search (for example, "What have you got on personnel management techniques in the Soviet Union?") But don't be fooled by this freedom. Overly broad searches will yield cumbersome and often ill-matched results.

Time spent in defining your search terms is usually time well-spent. Let's say you're interested in searching for information on quality assurance. Some advance thought, coupled with your knowledge of the field, might prompt you to search on "quality management" or "process control."


•Â Match the tool to the job. Each search engine is unique. Familiarize yourself with at least several so that you know instinctively which is best for a particular search. For example, you might find that a directory-oriented engine like Yahoo! (www.yahoo.com) is useful for collecting general information on a topic quickly. You might find that another engine that searches site text, like AltaVista (www.altavista. com), will help you conduct a longer, but more exhaustive, search.

Don't assume a relationship between the number of sites generated by a search and the quality of the engine. What counts is the quality, timeliness and focus of the sites themselves.


•Â Seek variety. Many search engines offer multiple ways to conduct searches. Yahoo!, for instance, offers five search methods and allows you to specify the locations (such as general Yahoo! sites, news and events) you'd like to search.

Lycos (www.lycos.com) allows you to customize your searches to people, pictures, sounds, companies and other broad parameters. When confronted with an option, you don't have to select a search method, however. Most engines will default to whatever search technique the system labels as most appropriate.


•Â Recognize the difference between directories and indexes. A simplistic explanation: Search engines using a "directory" approach attempt to categorize Web sites by topic. Engines using an "index" approach attempt to categorize sites on the basis of the appearance of key terms and phrases there. Directories often allow you to search for general information with a minimum of time and fuss. Indexes, on the other hand, may allow you to search for very precise information or sites associated with obscure topics most efficiently.

If you're trying to find information on a general subject, such as "product promotion techniques," you might be better off searching on that subject using a directory-oriented engine. If you want to find information on product promotion techniques at specific companies, you might be better off using an index-oriented engine to search on company names. The substantive differences between the directories and the indexes, though, will vary from topic to topic. The more you practice, the more you will gain a feel for what's right for you.


•Â Learn how syntax and word patterns affect searches. Some search engines attempt to score the number of times a particular word or phrase appears in a site's text. In other cases, a computer program (or even human intervention) might determine how a site is tracked and categorized. By understanding the process each engine uses, you are in a better position to conduct quick searches. Visit the help screens of your favorite search engines to find out.

You will also want to learn whether your favorite engines allow you to search with a "wild card" - a symbol, such as the asterisk, that substitutes for part of a word or phrase that you don't know. Wild card searches might turn up more hits than you want, but they may also allow you to uncover sites you didn't know existed.


•Â Use the search aids. Search engines, primarily directory-oriented engines, attempt to categorize sites in hierarchical menus. For example, sites related to health may be grouped together, with sub-directories further grouping sites on child health, diseases, preventive medicine and other health subjects. When you need information on broad subjects, you may be better off using a menu-driven directory than roaming freely through the World Wide Web using a wide assortment of search terms.

Many engines offer rankings that arrange sites in order of the statistical probability that will meet your needs. Ranking is far from an exact science, but if your search yields a thousand hits, a rank-ordered list is better than an indiscriminate collection of all the recommended sites. Look for more search engines to offer reviews of popular sites to save search time. (For example, Magellan at www.mckinley.com is already doing this.)


•Â Learn the Boolean basics. Computer programmers know all about Boolean operators - the quasi-algebraic commands that make computer code work and, in the case of the Web, help define searches. You don't need to become an expert in Boolean logic to perform Web searches, but if you learn the basics you can transform an excruciating search into a simple one. For example, by placing the operator "and" between the words "skin" and "cancer," you can often narrow the search to sites concerned with "skin cancer."

But the Web is not always simple. Each search engine uses Boolean terminology in a slightly different manner. One engine, for instance, might assume that the words "skin cancer" deal specifically with that topic. Another engine might assume an imaginary "or" between the terms and call up sites dealing with "skin" and "cancer." Still another engine might use algebraic symbols instead of words. The secret: Once you have settled on your favorite search engines, review their help pages to learn their search logic.


•Â Don't forget those quotation marks. Often, when you place quotation marks around a search term, the engine will attempt to retrieve sites that match your terms exactly. But remember, this is not always the case. Check the help section of each search engine to find if quote marks are required.


•Â Be careful of symbols. If your search terms and phrases contain symbols or numbers, you may be headed for trouble. Each search engine interprets symbols in different ways. Even experienced Web users have difficulty here. Limit search terms to text unless absolutely necessary.


•Â Remember, the big engines aren't the only game in town. Search engines like Yahoo!, AltaVista, eXcite (www.excite.com) and Lycos are well-known, but they are not the only engines available to you. Hundreds of specialized search tools exist on the Web today, many of them focusing on highly specific subject matter.

Want information on North American drug companies? You can use almost any search engine, but BizWeb (bizweb.com) will allow you to conduct fast, tightly-focused searches on companies or product-related subjects.


•Â Run several engines at once when the time is right. Not sure which engine to use for a particular search? Consider conducting a "metasearch." Metacrawler at www.metacrawler.com and Savvysearch (129.82.102.175:2000/form) will submit your query to a number of different search engines. The only problem, of course, is that the search will result in duplication - and very possibly, a sprawling, disorganized collection of sites to visit. Still, if you don't know where to begin, this strategy might help.


•Â  Search the search engines. As the number of search engines proliferate, many users wonder which engine is best for searching specialized subject areas. Enter Search.Com at www.search.com.

Not only can you submit conventional searches at this site, but you can scan a long list of available search engines and select one or more that seem especially appropriate for a particular search.


•Â Read the instructions. While the quality of user assistance varies, most search engines offer instructions, either in the form of help or frequently asked questions pages. They usually explain the mechanics of the engine in non-technical terms: how sites are categorized, how to conduct a search in the most efficient manner possible and how to ask for clarification on thorny points. You can usually access the help menu from an engine's home page.


•Â Don't limit yourself to the World Wide Web. The Internet has many other resources available to you in your quest for information. For example, some 20,000 news groups -lists of people who correspond electronically on subjects of mutual interest - find a home on the Internet.

Usenet is an Internet resource devoted to these groups, and DejaNews (www.dejanews.com) is a search engine that points you to the groups of special interest to you. If you are interested in what other people have to say about a particular subject, a company or a product, submit a DejaNews query. You will soon be able to retrieve postings and, if you wish, join lists of interest.


•Â Track your searches. If you haven't used search engines much, record exactly how you conduct each of your searches. Eventually this log will provide you with the guidance you need to conduct advanced searches or design your own strategy. By logging your searches, you will eventually save time and boost your productivity on the Web.


•Â Bookmark favorite sites. If you roam the Web at random, you'll quickly forget where you've been. So establish electronic bookmarks, available in your Internet access software, to remind yourself of favorite sites. Bookmarks will make return visits effortless. PR