Untangle the Web

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Untangle the Web

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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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