It's arguably the internet's most revolutionary utility, beyond even e-mail. Search -- the ability to access information instantly across the globe, from population statistics on Peru to recipes for chicken lasagna -- is an act performed 550 million times a day on the Internet. Still, few users understand which is the best search engine for their particular needs and how to tune it for topflight results. Improving your ability to get from Point A to Point B, however, isn't rocket science. For starters, a couple of basic search tips can dramatically improve your results. After that, knowing which sources actually provide answers to your search queries -- and what their financial motivation is -- can also help sharpen your navigation skills. Armed with a little knowledge, your searches can more resemble a heat-seeking missile.
No question, Internet searchers are climbing a learning curve. The average number of words typed in per query has doubled in the past five years, to 2.5, according to Yahoo! (YHOO ) but entering more words is no guarantee of success. Remember, you aren't quizzing a know-it-all. You are looking for words and phrases as they actually appear on a page.
You can do it by keeping phrases intact with quotation marks. If you want to know President Kennedy's birth date, try "John F. Kennedy" and born, rather than "John F. Kennedy" and "birth date." It's more natural for the word born to be used than birth date. If you're in Phoenix and looking for a restaurant on Alma School Road, try: Phoenix restaurant "Alma School," rather than: Phoenix restaurant Alma School. The quotation marks tell the engine that the phrase "Alma School" must remain intact.
Using the "Advanced Search" feature offered by most engines is also a good idea. Many people avoid it because they mistakenly think it's geared to advanced users. In fact, it can help even novices refine a search.
Search techniques are only half the battle. It also matters where you search. If you're shopping, you may want to start by finding a relevant source rather than the information itself. That's because enormous amounts of data are stored in specialized databases that are often beyond search engines' vast tentacles. Try shopping comparison sites such as Pricegrabber.com and Shopping.com, which can sort results by product features or price.
Another tool for data-digging is invisible-web.net. Edited by reference librarian Gary Price and Web consultant Chris Sherman, the site is a researcher's gold mine, a gateway to tough-to-find data on everything from hospital statistics to U.S. Coast Guard vessels. It's organized into categories and subcategories. To find the Roller Coaster Database, for example, you go to Entertainment, then Amusements. You also can find databases in search engines such as Yahoo! by including the word database in the search box.
If you're like 85% of the online population, you do most of your searches on one of the Big Four: Google, Yahoo!, MSN (MSFT ) and America Online (TWX ). All the search engines deliver ads -- usually clearly marked as sponsored links -- around their results. But some of the biggies are now exhibiting commercial creep as they let advertisers pay to be listed in regular-looking search results -- a business dubbed "paid inclusion" (BW, Oct. 6). Although Google and AOL don't accept such ads, MSN, Lycos, and Yahoo!-owned Inktomi do. Not surprisingly, these engines tend to dish out results that are more commercial in nature.
In some cases, this can be helpful. If you're searching for something very specific to buy, like a crewneck sweater or a hotel room in San Francisco, paid-inclusion advertisers may provide more relevant and up-to-date listings. For example, a recent search for "Days Inn San Francisco" on Google turned up a handful of Days Inn hotels in San Francisco suburbs. The same search on an Inktomi-powered site churned out direct hits for Days Inn properties inside the city. Why? Travel site Travelocity.com pays Inktomi to scour its pages -- including those for San Francisco hotels -- generating, in this case, more relevant results.
If you're not shopping, the commercial tilt of such results can be annoying. Take a search for "Mozart" on AltaVista.com (YHOO ), which was recently acquired by Yahoo! Out of 588,405 Mozart-related listings, AltaVista judged the ninth-most-relevant site to be an Expedia.com page for hotels in the vicinity of Mozartplatz in Salzburg. Expedia.com pays AltaVista to be considered for inclusion in results.
One tool can provide a second opinion on your search results. Hotbot.com gives you a choice of results from four search engines, including Google and Inktomi. If you're not sure about the results from one, just click to bring up answers from another. You don't even have to retype your query.
Armed with a few basic search techniques and a little knowledge about search engines, your ability to find what you want on the Net will be vastly improved.
By Ben Elgin
With John Cady