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Home > Engines & Directories > Search Tutorial 

 Tips for Searching the Web  

 1. Be Natural 

Type in what you want to know, rather than a list of synonyms. Websites are written in flowing language, and search engines are being taught to understand the same.

If you would've asked a fellow human "Is alphabet soup nutritious?". Then ask the search engine "alphabet soup" AND nutritious rather than alphabet soup nutrition food health.

 2. Use Rare Words 

The more unusual or uncommon the keywords you use are, the more specific the results will be. Taking a moment to think of a valid yet uncommon word is a valuable technique.

alcohol returned 912,620 hits (AltaVista)
vodka fetched 120,740
and it narrows down to 2754 hits when you enter Stolichnaya.
  • Note: For a few engines the word order is important, so always enter the rare word first.

 3. Most Important Word First 

From personal experince with Google, I have found putting the word that is most important to your search in first, gets slightly better results

 4. Exclude Words 

By using a "-".

Say you sought the homepage of Bruce Willis, a plumber in Arkansas.

To avoid all the millions (actually 134,928) of pages dedicated to the film star, use this: "Bruce Willis" plumber Arkansas -"Die Hard" -movie -superstar -Demi

 5. Spell It Right 

Overture allows you to see how many times keywords or phrases have been searched for.
Here is an example of a hard to spell place name I looked up, Machu Picchu

Machu Picchu 4402 (correct spelling)
Machu Pichu 600
Macchu Picchu 720

A quarter of the people failed!

Also be aware of the differences between English and American spellings, such as colour & color. In such cases use (colour OR color).
  • Note: Google will let you know if a more popular alternative spelling exists

 6. Recognise Stop Words 

Search engines ignore the most common words, in an effort to speed things up. Several hundred of these are deemed to be "stop words". The vary from engine to engine, but always contain words like the of web a to in & is. It doesn't matter whether they are embedded in a phrase or if they have a + before them, they will not be included in the search. Usually this doesn't matter, but it is smart to be aware of the process.

Note: AltaVista and Google will find complete phrases, including stop words, when the phrase is "within quotes". A phrase without quotes will ignore the stop words

"searching the web" contains two stop words: the & web. Consequently the search engine will only look for "searching". If you are aware of this, you can add a more relevant keyword to narrow your search, like: "people search"
  • Note: Google will let you know of any words it has excluded

 7. Reverse Questions 

Search engines look for pieces of text that match your query. Web pages are more likely to contain answers than questions - so search for the answer. Phrase your query how you would expect the answer to read - the difference appears slight, but it makes a huge difference.

"IRS stands for" rather than "What does IRS stand for?"

"man first landed on the moon in" rather than "When did man first land on the moon?"

"sky is blue because" instead of "Why is the sky blue?"

 8. Dead Link Solutions 

Try shortening the URL to the next subheading. Keep doing so until you get to the point that works. Then browse from there to see if you can track down the file that you want.

If returns an error, try and if you still get an error, try and so on down to the root domain
  • Note: Google has most of the web cached. If a link is dead, clicking on the Cached link will bring up how it looked when it was indexed
  • Note: Use The Wayback Machine to find historical copies of web pages

 9. Huge Pages 

Sometimes the reason a page appears in the results is because it is one very long page of text, briefly mentioning hundreds of subjects. Sometimes these are useful, such as in genealogical searches. Often they are not...

In general, the most useful pages will be between 10k and 80k

To find that which you seek within a huge page, use the "Find in Page" option of your browser:

  • for Explorer & Netscape it is in the Edit menu
  • Google results list a maximum size of 101k. Many of these will be much, much larger and take forever to download.

 10. Use Boolean Phrases 

Named after George Boole, Boolean phrases are a system of logical combinations, using words like AND, OR & NOT. It is best to always capitalise them.

AND or "+"
Larry AND Curly AND Moe
Larry +Curly +Moe
AND requires the word to be present

Chico OR Zeppo
OR allows either word to be present

NOT or "-"
Marx NOT Brothers
Marx -brothers
NOT excludes words. In this example results should display sites about communism and not comedy.

"Salman Rushdie" NEAR teatowel
Finds keywords within 25 (Lycos) or 10 (Alta Vista) words of each other. Not supported by the other engines.

Marx NOT (Brothers OR Moscow)
"Jesus Christ" NOT Humor) AND (Mary OR Magdalene)

((alphabet AND Soup) NOT (twinkies OR "KFC")) AND nutritious

... is too confusing. Use

"alphabet soup" AND nutritious

... and if you get a lot of KFC hits, refine the results to exclude them (most top engines support this).

 11. Choose the Best Engine 

Don't just use any old search engine - they are all very different

  • Use the advanced engines These are never on the front page but they should be - I'm certain that 95% of users would have no difficulty understanding them. Ditch the standard engines and bookmark the advanced ones.

  • Play the field You will naturally make one engine your favorite, but when you have time you should play with the others. All the engines on this site have a unique advantage, and if you can learn what they are, your searches will become easier.

  • Don't flog a dead horse If you are having difficulty finding the site you want, try the same keywords on another engine (before resorting to Boolean or meditating on more appropriate keywords). Or use a metasearch engine.


There are some excellent books available to further help you with your web searching:

How to Find Almost Anything on the Internet : A Kid's Guide to Safe Searching

Search Engines for the World Wide Web: Visual QuickStart Guide

The Extreme Searcher's Guide to Web Search Engines :
A Handbook for the Serious Searcher

Two chapters present general principles that apply to all search engines, the following ten sections go deep with usage guidelines for 8 major search sites, plus a dozen or so metasearch engines and others of interest. Emphasis throughout is on precise understanding of advanced search techniques

The Complete Idiot's Guide to Online Search Secrets

The Invisible Web: Uncovering Information Sources Search Engines Can't See
This is the first comprehensive guide to searching the Invisible Web - the vast online resources that are ignored by major search engines - covering how search engines work, to why/where/when to use invisible search techniques, to case studies of several typical searches. Highly recommended for serious searchers.

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