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How to Search Smarter

Surfing the Net is like riding a rogue wave — you never know where the search engine is going to take you.

Know why it’s called “Surfing the Net”? Because it’s like riding a rogue wave — you never know where the search engine is going to take you. Her are some tricks for reducing search redundancy :

Be specific: Don’t type “sports car”; type at least three words in your search, such as “1987 Porsche 928.”

Use “and” or “not”: Adding “and” links two terms and focuses a search. Typing “not” narrows a search by excluding pages containing the second search term. Some engines assume you mean “or” if you don’t use a conjunction between words. “Or” expands the search, delivering sites with any of the words you’ve typed.

Use quotes: Most engines interpret quotes as “search only for sites with all words exactly as typed.”

Use an exclusion: After attempting a search, you may get dozens of similar sites that have nothing to do with what you’re looking for. Exclude these listings by adding a minus sign followed by the key words you don’t want to see. On one search engine, for example, “JAVA” yields 20,000 sites; “JAVA-coffee” slices the list to 26 sites, all on the programming language.

What’s the best search engine to use? It all depends on what you’re looking for.

Directories: A directory search engine clumps thousands of pages together under different categories, from “Old TV Shows” to “Wireless Communications.” Use a directory when you’re looking for information on a general subject, such as “1996 election,” rather than for a specific site, like the Hillary’s Hair page.

Several big directories on the Net — Magellan (http://www.mckinley.com) and Point (http://www.pointcom.com) — offer site reviews. The most popular directory is Yahoo! (http://www.yahoo.com), where you’ll find sites divided into logical subsections. But Yahoo’s content isn’t as current as it could be.

Indexes: When you need specific information on some obscure topic — and you want to blanket the entire Net — a search-engine index is the best tool to use. Indexing engines use software programs called robots or spiders that comb the Web, analyzing the text of millions of Internet pages and ranking them according to the number of times a particular word appears.

The biggest search engine is Digital’s AltaVista (http://www.altavista.digital.com). It gives you the best mileage, hitting millions of Web pages. But AltaVista’s presentation leaves a lot to be desired. It’s also tricky to use properly, with poorly explained rules.

My favorite in this category is Infoseek Guide (http://www2.infoseek.com). The millions of listings here are ranked for relevance, and there are crosslinks to related subject categories. This comes in handy when you go astray. For example, while looking for “Thelonius Monk” you can select the “similar pages” option to locate general jazz sites.

Metasearches: These piggyback on other search engines. When you type a query, the software goes to several other engines and submits it to each.

Metacrawler: (http://www.metacrawler.com) is one of the best. It submits your query to nine of the top search engines, including Alta Vista, Yahoo!, and Infoseek. The downside: you’ll generate redundant listings with this technique.

Savvysearch: ( will simultaneously submit your query to roughly the same search engines as MetaCrawler does. It’s much slower getting results, but it’s better organized.

Specialized Search Tools: Combing the entire Web doesn’t always turn up what you want. You may have to turn to a specialized directory that covers all the sites relating to your particular topic.

There are hundreds of such specialized directories. To find them, go to search.com
(http://www.search.com). Created by the folks at CNet, it contains links to over 300 indexes and search engines. Type “legal,” for example, and search.com will point you to several indexes, including West’s Legal Directory (http://www.wld.com).