As with any device, the first piece of advice is RTM: Read The Manual. Search engines have guidance pages which take users through basic procedures and obscure tricks. But can you be bothered? I certainly can't. There's a copy of AltaVista's help page saved in one of my folders: it's dated February 1998, and I doubt I've looked at it from then till just now. A small proportion of searchers will need to know how to find all the sites that have links to a particular site, or how to use "Boolean operators". What all search engine users want to know, though, is how to avoid getting too much information and not enough relevant material. For most of us, comprehensive help files are not a solution, but another instance of the problem.
Searchers after search engine enlightenment might do better to read the guides on Danny Sullivan's Search Engine Watch site. All you really need to know, however, is how to use the four master keys to effective searches on almost all the major engines: the magic symbols "", +, - and *. Quote marks are the most basic. They identify phrases, and are invaluable when the words of interest are common ones. If you wanted to find this column's Web pages, simply entering the words "second" and "site" would be likely to send the engine everywhere and get you nowhere. Putting quote marks round the words will restrict the results to pages containing the phrase, rather than the individual words.
Asterisks are used as "wildcards", which can come in handy for plurals and parts of speech: "search*" should locate "searching" and "searches". They are also useful if you're not sure how a word is spelled, or if it is spelled in more than one way, like "theatre" and "theater". Plus and minus signs are the ordinary person's version of Boolean operators, which sound esoteric but are basically terms such as "and" or "not". Placing a + in front of a word indicates that it must appear on every page listed in the results; a - specifies that it may not appear on any of the listed pages.
Plus signs are a good way to zero in on a particular aspect of a subject, while minus signs can be used to exclude topics which might overwhelm the search results. Danny Sullivan suggests "clinton -lewinsky" for the small proportion of Net users who want information about the American president other than the details of his relations with That Woman. For more specific inquiries, searchers might use entries such as "clinton +budget" or "clinton +"foreign policy"". As in arithmetic, you can put together strings of pluses and minuses.
Using the Big Four symbols to qualify the search words is the core activity of smart searching. Sometimes, however, it also helps to restrict the range of sites to be included. An easy way to do this is to use the language options on search engine interfaces; selecting "English only", for example, if you're interested in the Lazio football club but don't speak Italian. The geeks' way is to use commands such as "host" or "domain", available on some search engines. An academic interested in history departments at British universities could tell AltaVista to look for "history +host:ac.uk", restricting the search to sites with "ac.uk" addresses, denoting British academic institutions. But a would-be student interested in history courses might find a subject directory more informative; which brings us back to our old friend Yahoo!
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