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Using Search Engines for Online Research

THE SCIENCE OF SEARCHING

Even the fanciest 21st-century Web search is based on logic rules developed by 19th-century mathematician George Boole—specifically, the operators AND, OR, and NOT. The savvy use of Boolean logic eliminates words you want excluded, and can yield information spanning multiple topics simultaneously. Here’s a quick lesson.

Operators
You want to find articles that mention both trout and bass? Type "trout and bass" into the search-engine form. If you’d like to see pages that contain either fish, you’d enter your search as "trout or bass." But if you type "trout and bass" and get a bunch of pages that discuss fishermen who play the bass fiddle, think about retooling your query to read "trout and bass not fiddle."

Proximity
Boole didn’t think of it, but some Internet-search developers have added the operator NEAR to let you specify the proximity of words to one another. If you use the AltaVista Advanced Search, "near" means within 10 words. The Lycos Pro engine defines the term as meaning within 25 words.

Parentheses
You can also use parentheses to force a search order. Searching for "(trout and bass) and bait", for example, will get you pages with trout bait and bass bait. But searching for "trout or bass and bait" may yield a lot of information on ant bait, rat bait, and flounder bait, too.

Symbols
Most search engines let you type mathematical symbols to represent operators, such as "trout+bass-fiddle." Note, however, that a plus sign at the beginning of a word can also indicate that the word must be present.

Natural-Language Questions
If you type in a question, search engines will guess what you mean by deconstructing your query into keywords and operators.


BEST IN THE BUSINESS

Favorite search engines are a matter of personal preference, which is why we have two: For above-average thoroughness and speed, check out All the Web, and for speed and thoroughness, the ultrafast Google always seems to unearth the info you want. The latter automatically adds "and" between search terms and even provides a handful to special search terms and even provides a handful of special search categories, such as the United States Government, Linux, and Apple Macintosh.

And when you feel like asking questions, Jeeves has the answers. At the natural-language search engine AskJeeves, typing a query like "Where can I find tax information?" yields on-the-money hits, and in some cases related guides such as tax tour. Jeeves is especially smart about finding pictures or videos of particular objects or events.


GET WHAT YOU WANT

The biggest problem with searching the Web is an overabundance of information, much of it containing unrelated data. These five tips will up the chances you’ll find what you’re looking for.

Be Specific
Whenever you can, name names. "Rainbow trout" and "smallmouth bass" will return fewer and more targeted hits than the unadorned "trout" or "bass."

Make Phrases
Force the engine to search for exact phrases by enclosing phrases, rather than individual words, in quotation marks. You can mix phrases with individual words; for example, the string "trout and 'fishing in Minnesota'" will yield some good hits.

Skip "Stop Words"
To save space or to speed searches, some search engines ignore common words, known as stop words, unless they appear within phrases enclosed in quotation marks. Some common stop words: head, html, meta, table, title, and, but, for, from, here, her, his, how, not, than, that, the, them, then, these, they, this, was, were, with.

Be Negative
Take advantage of exclusions and Boolean negatives. Typing "bass not fiddle" will sift out many irrelevant hits.

Advanced Searches
Most search engines offer an advanced-search option where you can be more specific about what you’re looking for. HotBot's advanced-search page, for instance, lets you specify domains, grammatical variations (fish and fishing), date ranges, and pages containing links to certain media such as MP3 files.

Home Office Computing
July 2000 (pages 50-52)