Digging Deep Online
When you’re digging for treasure on a deserted island, it’s important to find a decent map, then use a strong-handled shovel to dig deep. Searching on the Internet is a little like digging for treasure. Once you find a robust search engine (the map), you need quality search methods (a sturdy shovel) to excavate information and get the results you want.
Almost everyone knows the basics of searching the Web: Don’t use too many words; type the most important word first; use double quotes to search for a phrase; make sure everything is spelled right; and don’t worry about capitalization. Not everyone knows advanced search tips like the ones below that strengthen queries and make it more likely that you’ll hit pay dirt.
1. Be Natural
Websites are written in natural language, and search engines understand it that way. Type what you want to know instead of lists of synonyms.
Insert an asterisk to get variable results in a phrase. Example: “parents pay * for *”— this returns results about many different things parents pay for and how much they pay.
3. Word Exclusion
Exclude what you don’t want by typing a minus sign before a term. Example: “Drum -ear -oil” avoids results that talk about eardrums or oil drums.
4. Rare Words
Use the most uncommon word or words possible. Results are more likely to address the intended topic.
5. Answer vs. Question
Search engines are more likely to share information in the form of answers than they are questions. So, type the query in the form of an answer. Example: The phrase (with quotes) “What is red dye made from?” will refer you to nonsense pages. The phrase (with quotes) “red dye is made from” gets the answers you want.
6. Boolean Phrases
Named after 1800s math teacher, George Boolean, Boolean phrases include linking words or symbols that indicate the relationships of words to each other and refine your search. Use Boolean linking words in all caps to make what you are looking for more obvious to the search engine. Linking words include: AND (+), OR, NOT (-), NEAR. Only Lycos and AltaVista use NEAR. Using NEAR will include results that put the two terms within 25 words of each other. You can nest Boolean phrases using parentheses. Example: “(biscuit AND berry) +recipe NOT cookie” will return biscuit recipes that include berries, but not recipes for cookies. (“Biscuit” is a term used in Great Britain to describe cookies.)
Use a tilde mark (~) in front of a word to search for its synonyms.
8. Similar Content
To search for webpages that have content similar to a given site, type “related:” followed immediately by the website address.
9. Stop Words
The most common words are ignored by most search engines to make the search function faster. This includes words like “the,” “and,” “a,” “to,” “of,” and “is.” Usually it doesn’t matter that these words are left out of the search. However, if it’s important for the search engine to recognize a stop word in your search, include it within a phrase surrounded by double quotes. Some search engines will recognize the stop word if you type a plus sign before the common word.
Keep in mind that some search engines may respond differently to the use of these advanced tips. For specific instructions, consult the search guides provided online.
Choose the Best Spot to Dig
You’re probably familiar with the most common search sites, including Google, Bing, Yahoo! and AltaVista. However, there are hundreds more to choose from. Each is built uniquely, which means they all have strengths, weaknesses, and specialties. A site called Go.com, for example, is family-friendly. IceRocket searches international blogs. Sproose searches Yahoo! and allows users to comment and vote on search results.
Experiment with different engines to determine which one works best for the searches you normally request. To find comprehensive lists of search engines and their capabilities, visit sites such as InternetTutorials.net or TheSearchEngineList.com. To keep up with the latest and greatest, check out AltaSearchEngines.com.
Meta search engines complete searches on multiple sites. The new 43Marks.com for example, allows you to toggle between results on Google, Bing, Wikipedia, and Yahoo. Some meta engines present collated results (everything in one screen), and others allow you to organize results by keywords or topics.
Once you find the search engine (map) you like for your purposes, then practice digging. The more you dig, the better you’ll get at finding valuable nuggets of information.
Caution! Avoid Risky Searches
Some search terms are riskier than others because the search categories are used by hackers to lure unsuspecting users to their sites. These sites can lead to downloadable files containing malware, registration forms that result in high volumes of unwanted e-mail, or excessive pop-ups and phishing. Some are considered risky because they link aggressively to other risky sites.
According to a 2009 report from security software company McAfee, the single riskiest search term is “lyrics.” Other terms on the list include:
- “screensavers” – Nearly six out of the top 10 search results for "screensavers" contain malware.
- “free” – People looking to save money, and/or searching for means of additional income, should be aware that clicking on results that contain the word "free" have a 21.3 percent chance of infecting their PCs with online threats such as spyware, spam, phishing, adware, viruses, and other malware.
How can you search more safely?
Make sure you install a good computer security suite, download files only from trusted sites, and be aware of potential dangers as you dig for information.