The story goes that the Internet puts the world at your fingertips, but that very wealth of information can make finding things all the more difficult. PC World takes a look at online search engines and shows you how to make sure they get straight to the point.
If your local library expanded its collection of titles at breakneck speed without properly cataloguing them, you'd be pretty flummoxed when it came to finding something you wanted. That's how using the Web feels. It grows and grows until it's no longer easy to know how to find what you're after online. If you're not overly Web-savvy, it can be very tricky.
Step forward search engines, without which the Web would be nigh-on unusable. They are the online equivalent of a cataloguing system but, given the size of the Web, they're not always successful at locating what you are looking for. To understand the mammoth job they have on their hands, type the words Gulf War into a search engine such as Google (www.google.com). You'll find those two keywords are matched in some 3,160,000 Web pages.
Even with a search engine trawling the Web, it can feel like looking for a needle in a haystack. There are, however, certain tricks you can employ to make your search easier, more profitable and less frustrating.
Be advancedAdvanced Search page allows you to narrow a search using various parameters such as the date it was modified or the language it's written in. You can even search within a single URL.
For protective parents, Google can limit offensive content - click on Filter Using SafeSearch to enable it. Within the Google Preferences page (www.google.com.au/preferences) you can then select how strict you want the filter to be. You can look for specific images by going to http://images.google.com, and if it's up-to-date news from loads of different sources you're after, try Google News at http://news.google.com.
At a crawling pace
Before diving straight into a search engine, it helps to know just what makes them work and which different types exist. As a rule of thumb, there are three types of search engine: crawler-based engines, human-powered ones, and ones that combine the two. The former are the most popular - Google, for instance, uses a crawler-based engine, as do HotBot (www.hotbot.com) and AltaVista (www.altavista.com.au).
Crawler-based engines send out a software robot known as a 'spider' or 'crawler' that travels across the Web looking for particular words. The information the spider brings back is catalogued by the search engine for you to view. The spider is sent out on a regular basis and any changes it finds will eventually be reflected in the listing.
Although most crawler-based search engines work in roughly the same way, sending out spiders and indexing what they find, the words they search for and the way they index their findings changes from engine to engine. This is why, if you type the same keywords into two engines, you will get different results.
Human-powered search engines, or directories, have a voluntary army of editors who add Web pages to the directory and review them individually. A good example is the Open Directory Project (http://dmoz.org). It's a non-commercial site, so it's free of pop-up ads. Other directories such as Yahoo (www.yahoo.com.au) use crawler-based search engines plus a large directory of sites kept up to date by staff.
There is another type of search engine known as a metasearch. These sites - such as Search.com (www.search.com) and Dogpile (www.dogpile.com) - 'piggyback' on the results picked up by other search engines. They even allow you to choose which search engines to use.
Getting ResultsThere is a whole gamut of tricks you can employ - from the simple to the complex - to help you hit the nail on the head when you're searching the Web.
Perfect match: always try to be as specific as possible when keying in a search. If you're looking for sites relating to the history of Stonehenge, you can do better than just typing Stonehenge into the search bar. Type History Stonehenge to avoid irrelevant results. Be specific in your terminology. If you're looking for a weekly cleaner, typing Cleaner will not get you very far; Domestic Help will get healthier results.
Location, location, location: another trick is to type the relevant country (or town) in order to narrow your search even further.
Order, order: it can also help to enclose a phrase or term in quote marks so that the search engine knows to look for those words in that order, rather than just pages that randomly feature those keywords.
Canny browsing: by checking out a site's links, you may eventually get to where you want to be.