Search and find

Question: How do I get the best results from search engines? –Trish

Answer: There are many secrets that lie within search engine pages, but they are not immediately obvious. Here are a few advanced techniques.

Search engines work by comparing words that you type in their query boxes to a massive library of indexed web pages. They use software to study web pages and rank them according to topics and keywords. Some engines, like Yahoo, also use humans to categorize pages.

So simply typing in one word into the search box is usually not enough. Think of walking into a library and telling the librarian that you’re looking for information on ‘music’. Chances are that the librarian will ask you to be more specific. If she found every book containing the word music for you, the pile would be very high.

Essentially that’s what happens when your search is too vague on a search engine. It looks for every web page it can find in its index with that word in it and lists hundreds and hundreds of results, which can be disheartening to a novice searcher.

So, to be an effective internet researcher, you need to find ways to tell the search engine more specifically what you want. You’re in the right place to learn how to do just that!

Whenever you start a search, think of several words that relate to your topic. Perhaps you want to know about the Swedish pop group Abba, but are actually more interested in what happened to the women in the band. In this case, your search could be: abba female members. (Note that most, but not all, search engines don’t differentiate between upper and lower case characters.)

With that query, you’re telling the search engine to find all pages that include these words: abba female members. If any of these words appear anywhere in a web page, then that page will be displayed in your search results. So, if a page has the word female, but not the other two words, that page will still be in the results you get back.

Soon you discover that the female members of Abba were named Agnetha and Frida (also known as Anni-Frid). If you add Boolean operators, which are the special words AND, OR, and NOT, then you can narrow your search further.

  • The AND operator forces the word to be in the results. So the query abba AND agnetha AND frida will find pages that include all of those words.
  • Using the OR operator is like using a blank space between words. So abba agnetha frida is the same as abba OR agnetha OR frida.
  • The NOT operator excludes words from any results. So the search query abba AND agnetha AND frida NOT bjorn NOT benny would result in web pages that include the word abba and mention the women’s names, but not any page that also refers to Bjorn and Benny, the male members of Abba.

There are shortcuts to these operators, which can be very helpful. The plus (+) and minus (-) symbols can be used instead of AND and NOT.

  • So the query: +abba +agnetha +frida would produce pages the same
    as abba AND agnetha AND frida. All words would be found in the pages listed in the search results.
  • The query +abba +agnetha -frida would find pages about Abba and Agnetha, but exclude any mention of Frida.
  • To mix and match, the search query +abba agnetha -frida would produce web pages that might contain the word agnetha, would not contain the word frida, and would definitely contain the word abba.

Quotation marks (“) are also a very useful tool in searches. They define phrases. So if you enter “mamma mia” into a search box, including the double quotes, the search engine will look for web pages that contain that phrase and not the individual words separately.

Parentheses are useful too. For example, abba AND (album OR single) would look for web pages that are about Abba and their albums, or Abba and their singles.

You can mix and match all these techniques to do fairly elaborate searches. Try this search query: “mamma mia” AND abba AND (theater OR musical) -london. It should find web pages that mentioned either the word
theater or the word musical and the phrase mamma mia and the word abba. The results would not contain the word london. Hopefully you would get results that talked about the musical called “Mamma Mia” featuring Abba music but excluded pages that referred to performances in London (or any other mention of London).

Now, go put on the Abba tune “Dancing Queen” and celebrate. Make sure you pull down the blinds so you don’t embarrass yourself in front of the neighbors. Done? Good.

Not all search engines support all these advanced features, but most do. There’s a good guide to search engines and the search features they support at:

If a site has index categories, as Yahoo does, it’s often better to search by category. Yahoo has human editors that categorize web pages by topics. Instead of typing search terms, try clicking down through the categories, which are often several levels deep, to find great sites related to your topic. This is a good technique to use if you’re just browsing or are unsure what specific area you are interested in.

Natural language search engines can be particularly useful. (formerly
is one of these. On the site, you type in your question, as you’d ask it to another human being. “Natural language” means that instead of using keywords, you type your query just as it might be spoken, as in: Where are Abba’s lyrics located on the web? will respond with results that include
pages other search engines find as well as related sites rated by staff. It will also suggest related search terms.

Finally, it’s worth looking for links or buttons right on the search engines’ websites that refer to advanced searches. These web pages often list advanced search techniques for that particular search engine, as well as tips on how to more specifically search the search engine site you are in.

Below are some web addresses of advanced search tip pages on popular search engines.