Untangling the Web
Seek and You Shall Find: Using Specific Search Engines
In the November 2002 issue of AccessWorld, I defined the different types of search engines and presented basic strategies for working with them. In this article, I highlight some of the more popular search engines and provide a small list of valuable web sites to visit to learn more on your own.
There are many good search engines, and new ones emerge every day. After the address for each search engine listed, I have included a few notes of particular interest related to special features or access issues. I did not include any engines that present significant access problems.
In addition to the search engines that emphasize their wide reach on all topics, there are specialized engines, such as dictionary.com, which searches only dictionary sites and presents different definitions of given words. There are search engines that are specific to a given country, language, type of research, or even one database on a specific site. To find more of these search engines, see the Resources section. One example of particular interest is the search engine of the National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped (NLS) <www.loc.gov/nls/web-blnd/>. It lets you search for books in accessible formats from the holdings of NLS, Recording for the Blind and Dyslexic, and many other organizations in the United States and elsewhere.
One access issue related to search engines is the clutter on some pages. Some popular search engines, such as Yahoo! and MSN Search, have such a multitude of links on their pages that finding the logical structure can be daunting for the beginner. One solution is the search engine called Seti-Search, <www.seti-search.com>. Self-proclaimed as "the speech-friendly search engine," Seti-Search also lets you customize the appearance of the page by selecting "change colors."
Seti-Search is actually a system for reformatting the work of some other search engines. The essence of this site is simplicity. Plug in your search string (the words you are searching for), choose a search engine from a drop-down combo box, and submit. The results page (in most cases) is presented as a simple list with no clutter at the top. Basically, you get the immediate gratification that often eludes web surfers who are visually impaired. A disadvantage of using this system is that you might lose some of the features of the individual search engines. In addition, there are no clues on the Seti-Search page about the properties of the individual search engines.
This search engine, <www.alltheweb.com>, has a simple and accessible interface, with results combining directory listings from Open Directory (discussed later) and its own crawler-based engine. You can choose to turn your words into an "exact phrase" by simply checking a box. It gives you the ability to customize a lot of features that remain in place when you use it in the future. Among these features is the ability to set the number of results per page from 10 up to 100, to have results opened in a new window, and to have your queries "rewritten" to help improve your searches. You can search specifically for several different categories of files: news, pictures, videos, MP3 files, and FTP files.
This crawler-based search engine, <www.altavista.com>, allows you to customize your searches. Its advanced page lets you choose date ranges—a feature that is not totally reliable because it depends on accurate date information being made available on the individual site servers, but it is nonetheless useful. A helpful feature of this engine is that the results page includes a "translate" link after each entry that takes you to a form filled in for that page where you can translate results into another language. Although computerized language translation can be quirky (what sort of word is "welcomely," anyway?), I have found it to be both useful and fun. Try searching for pages in French that contain "Louis Braille" and then translate them into English.
This search engine, <www.google.com>, primarily crawler based, has a simple and accessible interface. At the same time, it is amazingly powerful. It uses "link analysis" in its ranking formula—sites that are linked to a lot of other sites appear at the top of the results page—producing useful results for even general searches. Ironically, there is no "help" link on the main page to explain all its powerful options, but you can get help at <www.google.com>. Through "Google preferences" you can set a variety of options, such as the number of results per page from 10 to 100 and the ability to open results in separate windows. One unique feature is that it browses non-HTML files, including PDF, Microsoft Office, PostScript, and Corel WordPerfect, and offers a link for each to view them as HTML. Google also has a directory with listings from the Open Directory (discussed later), which it ranks using its own powerful system. It offers the ability to search the entire Usenet (a message-oriented non-Web portion of the Internet that long-time users may be more familiar with). The catalog search feature will be valuable for some low-vision users. It allows you to browse through scanned versions of catalogs that were not previously available online, although since graphical files are large, it may be too slow to be useful with a dial-up connection.
This directory, <www.looksmart.com>, also provides results to some other search engines, such as MSN Search. It uses Inktomi as a crawler-based backup when it cannot find a result from among its own listings. Its presentation is uncluttered for a directory, and once you choose a category, you can choose to search the entire Web or only within that category from a drop-down combo box.
Lycos, <www.lycos.com>, is a site that can be both useful and confusing. It is basically a directory-based engine, with results from both AllTheWeb and Open Directory (discussed next). Depending on the category you select, you have different choices, such as the financial page where the edit box is a place to enter a stock symbol. Despite its jam-packed home page, the "more categories" link is essential to make the site truly useful. It has a powerful more advanced search page for a site of primarily directory listings. The home page includes today's headlines, sports information, lists of "hot search topics this week," and lots of other information that is not directly related to the searching process.
Compiled by volunteers, this directory cannot be accessed directly, but its information is made freely available to other search engines. You can visit the site <http://dmoz.org/> if you want to become a volunteer compiler.
Yahoo!, <www.yahoo.com>, has the largest human-compiled directory. It recently contracted with Google, and the results are now a blend of those from Yahoo's directory and Google.
This accessible web site, <www.searchenginewatch.com>, is full of clearly written articles on just about every topic related to search engines. On the home page, you can sign up to receive either daily or monthly e-mail newsletters. Membership is available, but that feature seems to be primarily of interest to people who want their sites listed and ranked higher in the engines. Start with the link "First-Time Visit?" and you won't have trouble finding anything you want to know on this site.
This web site, <www.pandia.com>, entitled "Search the Web with Pandia, your guide to search engines and Web searching," includes tutorials, links to engines, articles, its own search tool, a bimonthly newsletter, and daily updates on the site.
This "about" site <http://websearch.about.com/>, run by Kevin Elliott, contains information about everything from the big search engines, small niche engines, related forums and chat rooms, a newsletter, information about new sites, articles, and tutorials.
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