November 2002 Issue  Volume 3  Number 6

Untangling the Web

Start Your Engines: Successful Web Searching

The Internet is a great source of information for those of us who cannot easily read hard-copy print information. Search engines are perhaps the most powerful tools we have for finding the information we need or want. The good news is that most search engines are accessible using assistive technology. You need to know how to fill out forms and will benefit from learning any special features your access software has for working with your web browser, but you will rarely run into mysterious graphics or inaccessible controls. The important thing is to come up with a strategy that suits your personal needs as to which engines to use and how to use them. The more you use search engines, the easier it gets.

This article explains the different types of search engines and presents basic strategies for working with them. In the January issue, I will highlight some of the more popular search engines and provide a small resource list of some valuable web sites to visit to learn more on your own.

Types of Search Engines

There are two main types of search engines—directories that depend on human-compiled listings, and crawlers, computer-driven tools that gather information from the web using different algorithms or formulas. Yahoo! is perhaps the most popular directory- based engine in use today, while Google is fast becoming the most popular crawler. Most search engines, however, actually make use of both types of information.

Directory-based engines, such as AOL search, use a crawler-based engine as a backup, in case your search words do not match anything in the directory. Some engines simply combine two partners—one directory and one crawler—and add their own ranking system or other features. For example, MSN search uses a directory-based engine called LookSmart and backs it up with results from a crawler-based engine, Inktomi (the same crawler used by AOL search for backup). If you are on the home page of a search engine containing dozens of links to different categories like automotive, business, science, and religion, you are probably dealing with directory listings. The only way to know for sure is to read articles about them and follow the news. is an invaluable, accessible site for finding this sort of information in nice, concise lists. It also has an e-mail list that distributes news about changes in the world of search engines.

Two considerations are involved in whether you are getting the best possible results. One is whether the search engine finds most of the relevant sites with a minimum of irrelevant ones, and the other is how it ranks these sites. Several search engines may use the same basic crawler or directory but use different formulas for deciding the order in which results are given. For example, AltaVista is good at finding things, but a little weak on the ranking side, meaning you may have to look through a lot of listings to find what you want.

My recommendation is to find one primarily crawler-based search engine and one directory that work well for you but to experiment with others when you do not get what you need. As you find ones that seem to help with specific types of searches, use them as your own backup tool kit. You may want to test new engines to determine if you should change your choices.

How to Use a Search Engine

The most basic way to work with all search engines, and the best way to start with a crawler-based search engine, is to use the input form on the home page. See the section "How to Use a Directory" for some different strategies that may work better for that type of tool. You type a word or phrase into an edit box and press a submit button (labeled Search or Go). Screen- reader users can use the appropriate command to skip directly to the first "control" on a page to bypass repetitive links and advertising at the top.

On your first visit to a search-engine site, you may find it helpful to explore the area surrounding the main edit box for useful controls or links, such as options to search only within audio or to choose a foreign language. To find out more, follow the Help link.

After you submit your search, you will be presented with a results page, usually starting with all the same repetitive links found on the home page. Locate a statement like "Results 1–10 of about 20,500" or "Returned: 15,900 matches." The next time you use the same engine, you can use the Find comment to search for a word such as "returned" or "result" to go directly to the place you want to be. Most search engines display only 10 results at a time, but some offer the option to display as many as 100 at a time, which can be a real advantage. Results are usually presented as the title of the page in question, a brief description or excerpt from the page, and the URL (address) of the page. After the first 10 results, you will find links to additional results pages. Unless you are looking for something specific like an organization's home page, it is a good idea not to limit yourself to the first 10 matches.

Many engines generate revenue by charging a fee for ranking a site at the top of the results list if it matches a search in some way. So, the first result of a search on "Benjamin Franklin" may be the opportunity to look up his address and phone number, and a search on "recycling days in Brooklyn" may pop up the option to find books on "recycling days in Brooklyn" at Amazon. The choices do not necessarily make sense, but they do provide income for the sites, allowing the engines to be available free of charge.

Improving Your Searching

Your choice of search terms does make a difference. Here are some simple strategies you can use to improve your results:

First, be specific. To find a place to repair your braille writer, do not just enter "braille writer"; enter "braille writer repair." To learn who discovered electricity, do not just enter "electricity"; enter "who discovered electricity." Remember that people create web sites, and you are trying to match their thinking, not the thinking of a computer. Note that you do not need to use upper-case letters in search engines, and in most cases it does not help to use them.

Second, there are some tools you can confidently use in any search engine that usually work and do not do any damage if they do not. They are the plus sign, minus sign or dash, and quotation mark. A plus sign immediately followed by a word means "give me pages only that contain this word." Some search engines, such as Google, automatically assume that a page must contain all the words you have entered, but some also list pages that contain any of the words, making for a long and unspecific list. For example, if you enter "Disney World vacation packages" in one engine, you may get only pages that have all four words, while another may give you every page on the web containing one of the words.

A dash or minus sign immediately before a word means "omit pages containing this word." If you are looking for information about jaguars, the animal, you may notice that most of the results you get refer to sports teams or cars. Use these hits to get an idea of what terms may be useful to exclude and then try again, entering something like "+jaguars-hockey-football-baseball-Jacksonville," resulting in a list heavier on the animal information and significantly shorter. Quotation marks around more than one term treat the words as a phrase. Entering "jaguar habitats" gives you a fairly short list of results with nothing about sports teams.

You can also combine these tools into one search. For example, if you were looking for a recipe for chopped liver, "chopped liver" would provide references to all the times someone asks "What am I, chopped liver?" Many lists of recipes do not include the word "recipe" right after the name of the dish. However, the word is usually on the page somewhere. Entering: + "chopped liver" + recipe should take care of the problem.

Third, consider the issue of "politically correct" language. If you call yourself "visually challenged," but you are searching for sites about participating in Alpine skiing, you may do better with "blind" or "visually impaired" or putting both choices into the "any of the words" section field on an advanced search page. Conversely, if you are having trouble locating an adaptive product for a blind child, you may need to try "visually challenged" and "special needs." For any search that includes ethnicity or politics, use the terms that are most likely to find what you want.

Fourth, use other controls and advanced pages. Do not be scared off by the term "advanced"; it is usually just a way to give you other options. As I noted previously, some search engines automatically give you only those pages that include all the words that you entered. If you really want to search on any of the words, you may need to go to the advanced page. In one search engine, HotBot, this choice can be made from a combo box immediately following the search button on the main page. Some of these choices can be made using what is called Boolean searching (the use of "and," "or," "and not," "near," and a variety of other choices, including multiple layers of parentheses), but these terms are not consistently used in all search engines. In most cases, there is a simpler way to accomplish the same thing.

How to Use a Directory

Although all the directories I have ever visited had input forms, this is not always the best way to make use of them. Directories are comprised of information compiled by people who assign pages to relevant categories.

To find information about the animal jaguar at Yahoo!, follow the "animals" link on the home page. You will be on a page that includes a list of subcategories, such as "events," "organizations," and irrelevant animal categories like "marine life." At the top of this page is an edit box and search button, followed by the options "all of Yahoo!" and "just this category." If you enter "jaguars" into the edit box and choose the option "only in this category," you will find a page that contains a link to a subcategory "jaguars" and links to pages from the animals category that specifically have information about jaguars. Similarly, you may have chosen a subcategory on the previous "animals" page and restricted your search to jaguars on the resulting page. In this case, you do not want to get so specific because it is a specialized topic. The results will start becoming hit or miss.

Not all directories allow you to limit your search to a category. Without that ability, you are best off continuing to narrow down your subcategories until you get to lists of pages that seem relevant. In AOL search, I prowled to jaguars by choosing (by trial and error), "kids & teens," "school time," "science," "animals," "mammals," and finally "jaguar." Tedious as this process may seem, it is still more profitable than the results you would get from a crawler-based search engine.

Since directories are limited to what people put in them, they are not as complete or timely as the crawler-based collections. You may want to start with a directory if you are looking for information that is general enough to have been found but quantifiable enough to list, such as "airlines" (you will get a list of all the airlines in the world).

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