Untangle the Web

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Search Smarter

The Web is truly a great invention—right up there with the wheel and dashboard cup holders. But it wouldn’t be much fun if you couldn’t find anything on it—a distinct possibility, as it grows by at least five million pages a day. While more pages mean more information and media to meet your needs, they also mean that to find the good stuff, you have to sort through a digital pile that’s growing even as you search.

While most people get stuck in the rut of using the same search engine to look for everything, savvy searchers try to use the right tool for each job. Here are a few sites worth bookmarking—and some secrets about them few people know. (To learn more about advanced search techniques, see “5 Query Tricks.” )

Google, the Granddaddy of Them All

It’s news to approximately nobody that Google is an awesome and hugely popular search engine. In fact, the good engineers at Apple like it so much that they built a Google search box right into the Safari toolbar—so you don’t have to hop over to www.google.com to run a Google search. Instead, just type your terms into the search box and let ’er rip. (If you’re interested in a Google toolbar that has a lot more features, take a look at Mozilla’s Firefox browser.) What few searchers realize is that Google has a lot of seldom explored—yet tremendously useful—features.

Find Images Fast If you want to find graphics on the Web—including photos, maps, cartoons, posters, and more—Google’s Images is a trove of 880,000,000 pictures you can search by keyword. To use it, go to http://images.google.com, or click on the Images link on Google’s home page. You can also run a regular search and then click on the Images link at the top of your results page to run that same search in Google’s image bank. Google shows you your results in the form of thumbnail images; click on one to view the page where Google found it.

Get the Picture

For example, a search for Cookie Monster brings up photos, drawings, and cartoons of the puppet. (Bear in mind that pictures you find on the Web usually belong to someone. If you want to use one, contact the site’s Webmaster to ask for permission.)

Get All the News Google also has a news site, which is constantly updated with stories culled from more than 4,500 sources. Of course, it’s a good place to find breaking news. But because Google News draws from so many media sites, its real benefit is that it lets you compare the way different outlets cover the same story. For example, you can easily see how New York and Boston newspapers approach the Red Sox-Yankees rivalry differently, or whether big-city media cover NASCAR adequately.

Compare Prices Similarly, Froogle—Google’s price search engine—lets you compare the prices different online retailers charge for the same goods. Try it, at http://froogle.google.com. (Incidentally, if you click on the Froogle logo, the list of recent searches is updated. That list is a good way to get ideas—or just to see the freaky stuff people have tried to price out.)

Do Conversions and Calculations In addition to its array of sites, Google has a few tricks up its regular search box. First, it’s a calculator. If you type in

and then press return, Google recognizes that you’re doing a calculation rather than looking for Web sites, and it shows you a results page with 2+2=4.

The Convenient Calculator

The calculator is a great way to do math without moving your fingers from the keyboard. Incredibly, you’re not limited to basic equations (use the asterisk [*] for multiplication and the slash [/] for division). It can also do square roots, logarithmic functions, exponentiation, factorials, and more. And you can do unit conversions—in plain English. For example, you can enter

How many feet in a meter?
A mile in inches
, or
10 miles in km
. You can find an excellent rundown of the calculator features at GoogleGuide, an unofficial Google help site.

Find a Phone Number The plain old Google search box is also a U.S. phonebook. Type in the name of a person or a business, as well as the city and state or zip code, and Google will give you an address and phone number. To use the search box as a yellow pages, type in the kind of business you’re looking for and a zip code or city and state, like this:

dog kennels Boulder CO
. Google gives you a list of canine boarders near Boulder (click on the top link—in this case, Local Results For Dog Kennels Near Boulder, CO—to get a full listing). The yellow pages feature, called Local Search, is very handy for planning a trip or finding, say, a pizza place in an unfamiliar town.

Google is also a reverse phonebook. If you type in a phone number, you’ll get a name and address. And if you type an area code, you’ll get a link to a map of the corresponding area.

But Wait, There’s More! Here are two more Google tricks. First, to get the definition of a term (rather than pages that mention it), type

and then the word you want to define. For example,
. (Don’t worry about whether there’s a space after the colon—your search will work either way.) Second, to look up the status of a package delivery on a carrier’s Web site (FedEx, UPS, or U.S. Postal Service), simply type the tracking number into the Google search box. The first line of your results will be a link to the page about your package.

Other Sites for Other Jobs

Of course, Google isn’t the only search engine in town. Others can turn up different results or display them in ways that may be more useful to you.

Vivisimo Most search engines show you your results as a fairly straightforward list. Vivisimo, on the other hand, clusters your results into categories, which is a terrific system for helping you find exactly what you want—not just something close to it. For example, if you search Vivisimo for the word volleyball, the site clumps your results into groups such as Equipment, Adult Leagues, Beach Volleyball, Rules, and so forth, letting you home in on the aspect that interests you.

Even better, you can use Vivisimo to search specific sites, including eBay, whose own results are sometimes chaotic and hard to sift through. (The pull-down menu next to the search box lets you choose a site or sites to search.) Because Vivisimo’s results are so well organized, you can get both a great overview of what’s up for auction under your search terms and a direct path to the specific stuff you’re interested in.

Auction Helper

As you can see on the left side of the page, the search engine clusters your results by category. This search tool is a lot more sophisticated than eBay’s, and it lets you home in quickly on the goodies you want to buy.

Dogpile Dogpile is a metasearch engine, which means that it runs your search through a bunch of engines simultaneously and then shows you the best results from each—a great efficiency trick (and it clusters results, as Vivisimo does). For example, when you want to find the top results of a search for the term “history of poker chips” from Google, Yahoo, Overture, Ask Jeeves, About, LookSmart and FindWhat, you can use Dogpile to search all of them at once—saving you trips to seven separate search engines.

Go Fetch Multimedia

Dogpile also offers a twist: it can look for things Google can’t, namely audio and multimedia files. If you run a search for a song title in Google (or any other engine that looks for text), you’ll get a list of sites that mention that song. If you type in the same title on Dogpile’s home page and then select the Audio option above the search box, you’ll get a list of sites from which you can download that song.

Yahoo A regular Yahoo search can sometimes unearth a page Google has missed. But one of Yahoo’s most useful features—a form that lets you search for particular kinds of information—is totally buried. If you run a Yahoo search, your results page has a Shortcuts link in the upper right corner. This takes you to a page with a slew of very specific search options, including area codes, traffic reports, weather, movie show times, exchange rates, and a whole lot more.

Start With the Right Site

To Find Info About... ...Check Here Notes
Government www.firstgov.gov Thoughtfully designed portal to the astounding array of U.S. government sites.
Health www.medlineplus.gov Run by the National Institutes of Health, with links to tutorials, clinical trials, and medical journals.
Law www.nolo.com Indispensable, plain-language explanations of all things legal.
Movies www.imdb.com Look up the cast, crew, and other details about practically every movie ever made—or search by person and find every movie or TV show an actor or director has worked on. You can also search for quotes from movies.
News www.topix.net Very well-organized news from more than 7,000 sources.
People www.accurint.com Surprisingly detailed information on individuals, but the site is not free.
Reference www.refdesk.com A treasure trove of links to every kind of reference information available on the Web—from almanacs to opinion polls to zip codes.
Words www.onelook.com Runs your search in 970 dictionaries at once; also does translations.

Looking for something really specific—like the text of an appropriations bill making its way through Congress? Bypass search engines altogether and go to a site that focuses on your topic. Here are some good sites for finding specific kinds of information.

Finders Keepers

A lot of people find that the hardest part of successful searching is training themselves to try a few different things. Get in the habit of testing different queries and alternative search engines, and soon you’ll be pulling needles out of the digital haystack every time.

[ Sarah Milstein is a coauthor of Google: The Missing Manual (O’Reilly, 2004). ]

Sidebar: 5 Query Tricks

Searching is simple, right? Just head over to a search engine, type your search term—for example,

Milky Way
—and press return. Within milliseconds, you’re staring at a list of six trillion pages that contain your query words. Unfortunately, 99.9 percent of those pages probably aren’t about your favorite galaxy. You need to filter out the flotsam. These simple yet sophisticated tricks work with nearly all search engines.

1. Include Quotation Marks If your search term is actually a phrase, put it in quotes, like this:

“Milky Way”
. Doing so eliminates any pages that contain just milky or only way. This trick is also good for names (
“Dan Rather”
) and lyrics (
“Mary had a little lamb”
), and for ensuring that your search engine doesn’t ignore common and small words such as a, and, and the. Many search sites consider these words superfluous unless you specify that they’re part of a phrase. So typing
“to be or not to be”
can get you vastly different results than
to be or not to be

2. Be Negative When you put a minus sign in front of a word in your query, search engines ignore pages that contain that word—which is a fantastic way to weed out irrelevant pages and focus your results. For example, in your search for “Milky Way” , eliminate words such as chocolate and candy —so the whole query looks like

“Milky Way” -chocolate -candy
. The results of that search won’t include any pages mentioning either chocolate or candy. (Incidentally, this example shows you something else important: you can mix and match query tricks.)

3. Use Wildcards A wildcard is a symbol—usually an asterisk (*) but sometimes a question mark (?)—that stands in for words or partial words you don’t know. For instance, if you can’t remember just what it was Mary had, enter

“Mary had a little *”
. Your search results are likely to start with instances of Mary had a little lamb, but they could also include variations, such as Mary had a little headache.

Some search engines—unfortunately, not Google—let you use a wildcard to substitute for part of a word, such as

“G* Bush”
—which gives you results including George Bush. The partial-word wildcard is critical when you can’t remember how to spell something. Another search engine I haven’t mentioned— AltaVista —lets you use that trick.

4. Ask an Answer When you have a question—“What color is Brad Pitt’s hair?”—what you really want to find is the answer. Therefore, your best bet is to search for the answer:

“Brad Pitt’s hair is *”
. (If you search for a question, you’ll find pages asking the same thing.) The wildcard and quotation marks come in handy in these queries, though you may have to try a few variations, for example,
“Brad Pitt has * hair” -facial

5. Try an Advanced Search Almost all search engines have a form for running an advanced search (look for a link on the home page). This form lets you specify additional conditions to narrow your search. Different engines offer different options, but common choices include date ranges (good for filtering out current or stale news); domains (a nice way to narrow your search if you’re looking for, say, pages from nonprofit companies); and languages (if you want only sites in Farsi, this is the way to get them).

Advanced search pages often let you block adult content from your results. However, this “safe searching” can occasionally block legit pages.

Sidebar: Avoid Undercover Ads

With most search sites, you get results that include boxes with links to one side, or links with colored backgrounds. These are ads. For example, if you search Google for the term My Life, the Bill Clinton memoir, you’ll see ads for Amazon.com and Barnes & Noble. However, Yahoo includes paid listings in your results with no indication that somebody paid for placement. These make up a small percentage of most Yahoo results, but they can displace results that better meet your needs. So when you run a search in Yahoo, make sure to look beyond the first page, or try another engine to track down the best stuff.

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