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Chapter 4. Tips and Techniques > 1. The Seven Habits of Highly Effective Web Se...

1. The Seven Habits of Highly Effective Web Searchers

We're not professional searchers, but we've logged a lot of hours over the years searching the Internet and other online systems. We have a pretty good idea of what works and what doesn't. Here are our recommendations for effective Web searching, organized into seven steps or “habits” that can make you a better searcher.

Develop the Internet habit.

When you have a question about anything—and we mean anything—your first step in nearly every case should be to check the Net. The answer may lie deep within a company-sponsored Web site, or in a newsgroup posting from two years ago, or among the millions of listings in a white or yellow pages directory, or somewhere else. But with the right search tool and search strategy, chances are you can find it.

2. Use the best tool for the job.

For day-to-day searching, you can't go too far wrong with any of the Big Six search engines (AltaVista, Google, HotBot, etc.). Don't forget, though, that each has its strong points—summarized in a sidebar on page 37 and covered in more detail in Part 2 of this book—that you'll want to consider when choosing the one to use for a particular job.

Keep in mind, too, that as good as these search engines are, they're not the best tools for every job. For example, some search engines give you the option of searching Usenet newsgroups as well as the Web. But to take full advantage of newsgroups, the best tool is Deja (www.deja.com), a search engine designed and optimized for newsgroup searches (Figure 4.1).

Figure 4.1. Deja (www.deja.com) is the ideal tool for searching newsgroups. No other site even comes close.

Most general-purpose search engines that offer a newsgroup search feature use Deja to “power” it. But they typically provide only a subset of the search capabilities you'll find at the Deja site.

Part 4 of this book will introduce you to Deja and some of our other favorite special-purpose search engines, like Topica (www.topica.com) for locating Internet mailing lists and the Argus Clearinghouse (www.clearinghouse.net) for finding subject guides to the Net.

To track down other special-purpose engines using a searchable directory, visit Search Engine Guide at searchengineguide.com (Figure 4.2).

Figure 4.2. Search Engine Guide (searchengineguide.com) is a great place to look for special-purpose search engines. Browse by category or use the search feature, as we've done here to look for sports-related search engines.

Big Six Search Engines and What They Do Best

  • AltaVista is a good choice for finding obscure facts and figures. It's one of the few search engines to offer full Boolean and case-sensitive searching, as well as a variety of field-search options to help target a search.

  • Google covers more of the Net than any other search engine. When thoroughness counts, be sure to check Google. Its method of ranking Web sites based on link popularity (the more links to a particular site, the higher its ranking) works especially well for general searches.

  • HotBot makes it exceptionally easy to search for multimedia files and to locate Web sites by geography. If you want the power of AltaVista with a much simpler interface, go with HotBot.

  • Lycos is another good choice for doing multimedia searches. Use it as well for finding phrases containing common stopwords (for example, "to be or not to be"). Unlike some search engines, Lycos won't ignore stopwords in phrases.

  • Northern Light lets you simultaneously search both the Web and a “special collection” database of articles, transcripts, and other documents not readily accessible on the Net.

  • Yahoo has the best, most detailed Web directory, making it an excellent choice for exploring a subject to find out what's available on the Net.


  • Usenet newsgroups (or newsgroups for short) are freewheeling “global conversations” on virtually every subject imaginable. They've been around far longer than the World Wide Web and are an excellent source of advice, personal opinions, and commentary. Think of them as expanding your circle of acquaintances when you're looking for things like recipes, travel tips, software fixes or workarounds—you name it.

3. Read the instructions.

No two search engines work exactly the same way, so it pays to read the online help and search tips provided at the site. For example, some search engines default to doing an AND search—type several words in the search box and the engine will assume you want to find all of them in your search results. Other search engines take the same request and by default perform an OR search—returning pages that contain any one of the words but not necessarily all of them.

At a minimum, you need to learn how to do AND, OR, and phrase searches at any site you're going to use on a regular basis. Another important point to zero in on is case-sensitivity—whether the search engine recognizes and acts upon uppercase and lowercase letters in your search request. Some search engines offer case-sensitive searching, others ignore case completely.

4. Choose unique keywords.

Before launching a search, take the time to think about what unique words or phrases are likely to appear in the information you want to find and try them first. To locate sites devoted to impressionist painters, for example, you might try Monet AND Renoir AND Degas. That's sure to produce better results than a search for impressionists or painters.

What about the complete text of a famous quotation, literary work, or even a joke you heard at the office? Try a phrase search on some small portion that you remember: "tiger tiger burning bright" to locate the William Blake poem (Figure 4.3). Or "man walks into a bar" for that joke you'd like to add to your repertoire.

Figure 4.3. A few words of a poem enclosed in double quotes are often all it takes to locate the complete work, as shown here.

5. Use multiple search engines.

Every search engine has its own way of doing things and none of them covers everything. In fact, as you may recall from our discussion of spiders in Chapter 1, even Google—which currently holds bragging rights to the largest database of Web pages—has yet to find and index more than 40 percent of the Web. So when thoroughness counts, you should plan on using several search engines.


  • You can automatically submit a query to multiple search engines using what are called metasearch services. MetaCrawler (www.metacrawler.com) is one of the oldest and most popular (Figure 4.4). Others with large followings include Dogpile (www.dogpile.com), InFind (infind.com), ProFusion (www.profusion.com), and CNET Search.com (www.search.com).The idea has caught on with many professional and casual searchers, who find that it can be a real timesaver.

    Figure 4.4. With MetaCrawler and other metasearch services, you can direct your query to multiple search engines—in this case AltaVista, Google, and Lycos.

  • Macintosh users running Mac OS 8.5 and later versions have a built-in metasearch capability. Part of the operating system's Sherlock application, the Internet Search tab lets you specify a word or phrase as well as the sites you want to search (Figure 4.5).

    Figure 4.5. Mac users have a built-in metasearch capability called Sherlock. Type a word or phrase in the Words text box as shown here, select the engines you want to query, and click on Search.

  • The major drawback to using a metasearch service (or the Mac's Sherlock metasearch feature) is that it takes your query and reduces it to its simplest form—stripping out quotation marks, for example, and any other punctuation and search terms that can't be handled by all the engines on the metasearch service's list.

    That may or may not be a problem, depending on the nature of your search. But it's not the same—and won't produce the same results—as going yourself to,say, three different search engines and crafting a query for each one that follows the prescribed format and takes advantage of each engine's unique search features.

  • We've also found metasearch engines to be more prone to timeouts than regular search engines. And they typically return only a small number of results (10-50) from any given search engine.

6. Consider the source.

Just because it's on the Net doesn't mean the information is either accurate or true. After all, virtually anyone can “publish” anything on the Internet and the World Wide Web. So be skeptical at all times.

If the information is on a Web site, try to determine:

  • What person or organization created the information?

  • What's the motivation behind it?

  • When was the material last updated?

The same goes for newsgroup postings, where unscrupulous marketers sometimes plant positive comments about their own products and negative ones about their competitors'—making it appear as though the comments were made by actual users of the products.

Multiple Search vs. Metasearch

It might take a bit more time to visit two or three search engines and conduct separate queries at each one. But you're likely to get better results in the long run.

Metasearch engines and the Mac's Sherlock feature have several major limitations:

  • Phrase and Boolean searching are generally not available.

  • Most return only 10-50 hits from any given search engine.

  • They are highly subject to timeouts.

Avoiding Search Rage

Based on the results of a survey reported in a recent issue of Danny Sullivan's “Search Engine Report” newsletter, it takes about 12 minutes for the average person to start feeling anger and frustration at not finding what they are looking for on the Net. Consequently, Sullivan recommends that you follow the “10-minute rule.”

If you haven't found what you're looking for in 10 minutes, says Sullivan, it's time to try more traditional alternatives—like contacting your local librarian, or picking up the telephone and calling directory assistance to get the phone number of a company that might be able to help you.


  • Many Web sites include an About Us or Company Info link that you can click on to get more information about the company behind the site.

  • Netscape's Page Info feature can sometimes help in determining the currency of a specific Web page. Click on View and then on Page Info. The resulting screen (Figure 4.6) will often include the date the Web page was last modified. (Microsoft Internet Explorer doesn't currently offera Page Info feature.)

    Figure 4.6. You can use Netscape's Page Info feature to find out when a Web page was last modified.

7. Know when to look elsewhere.

Don't assume that the Internet contains the sum total of human knowledge. The Net will always surprise you, both with the information that it does contain and with its lack of information on some specific topic.

Part of being a good online searcher is knowing when to stop. The information you want may or may not be available online. And if it is online, it may be buried so deep that it's not worth the time and trouble to locate it.

Your efforts may be better spent getting the information, fact, figure, or whatever you need using conventional printed reference works: almanacs, dictionaries, encyclopedias, and so forth. Start with the reference section at your local library, or ask the reference librarian for help.


  • For really tough search assignments,your best bet may be to find a recognized expert on the subject. Start by consulting the “Sources and Experts” list compiled by news researcher Kitty Bennett of the St. Petersburg Times. It's available at www.ibiblio.org/slanews/internet/experts.html.

  • You might also consider hiring a professional searcher (or information broker, as they are known in the trade). For recommendations, contact the Association of Independent Information Professionals. Their Web site at www.aiip.org (Figure 4.7) includes information about the organization's member-referral program.

    Figure 4.7. To hire a professional searcher, visit the AIIP Web site (www.aiip.org) and look for information about their member referral program.

  • To learn more about becoming a professional searcher yourself, check your local library or favorite out-of-print book source for The Information Broker's Handbook: Third Edition by Sue Rugge and Alfred Glossbrenner. Although it's no longer in print, this book is still considered by information professionals to be the definitive work on the subject.

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