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Search Engines

By one (very) rough estimate, there are now more than 649 million websites in the world. Practically everything you'd ever want to know is on at least one of them - if you can find the right one. That's where search engines come in. Tell 'em what you're looking for, and in an instant they'll show you all the pages that might have what you're looking for. Might.

Let's see if we can improve your odds.

Most search engines begin by "crawling" the Web: visiting huge numbers of pages, following the links they find, and capturing detailed information about each page. Next, using their own secret software, they analyze those pages, trying to "understand" and index them correctly. Then, you come along and enter a search term, and they return a list of the pages they think you're looking for.

You're more likely to get the right answer if you ask the right question. Here's how:
  1. Get specific. Want to know about buying a house in Denver, enter Denver real estate, not just Denver. Looking for an exact phrase, not just a bunch of words that appear on the same page? Place that phrase in quotes.
  2. Rule stuff out. Planning a trip to Paris? Don't want information about wayward heiresses? Make your Google search "Paris-Hilton", and voilá! Using Bing? Its Advanced setting lets you limit your search to specific countries, languages, or even specific web sites.
  3. Use "Operators." Not quite sure which terminology is being used for the information you're looking for? Use the "or" operator. For example, if your child is writing a termpaper on the rampant cutting of trees in rainforests, try the following search: rainforest logging or clearcutting.
  4. Watch out for the ads. Sometimes, if you're looking for a product, an ad is fine. But if you just want objective information, you want the best information your search engine can come up with. That may not be a self-serving ad. Paid ads typically appear at the top and at the right-hand side of search returns, and are marked as "Sponsored Results" (Yahoo!), "Ads Related to" (Bing), or "Sponsored Links" (Google).
By the way, Google's search box can do all kinds of nifty tricks. Like arithmetic. (Enter 3*2 and Google returns 6.) Like conversions. Need to know how many teaspoons in a cup? Enter cup in teaspoons; Google answers: "1 US cup = 48 US teaspoons." Like stock quotes. Enter DIS, and Google returns Disney's current share price. Google recognizes FedEx and UPS tracking numbers; automobile VIN numbers; even currency exchange rates. (Enter US Dollar in Euros, and you'll get... well, let's just say, if you're an international traveler, you'll get very depressed.)

One final, important tip: most leading search engines have filters that can help you prevent inappropriate pages from appearing in your search returns. But check your preferences to make sure they're turned on.

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