Friday, August 22, 2003

Online Search Tips and Tricks

A good article at The New York Times.

All major search engines allow you to limit searches by ruling out pages that might contain specific words. To do so, put a minus sign directly in front of the word you do not want to see. A search for "chocolate fudge recipe -marshmallows" will enable you to dodge the Rocky Road.

If you want to widen your search instead, you have the OR command at your disposal. Be sure to type it in capital letters. A search for "fudgy (icing OR frosting)" on Google doubles the caloric options. You can also use the tilde shortcut that Google unveiled earlier this month. If you put the tilde symbol in front of your keyword (try "fudge ~ icing"), Google will search for icing and its common synonyms.

As popular as Google is, it does not measure up when it comes to two other strategies beloved by expert information retrievers. One is truncation - the ability to chop off a word and put an asterisk in place of whatever was chopped, thereby searching for all variations of that word with one search query.

To many experts, AltaVista wins at this game. Plug "fudg* brownie recipe" into the search box and you will find fudge brownies, fudgy brownies and fudge-nut brownie cake.

The other trick is called proximity searching, in which you can search for two words in close proximity, instead of simply on the same page or within the same phrase. AltaVista has this licked, using the NEAR command. Type in "substitution NEAR chocolate" or better yet, "substitut* NEAR chocolate" and you get advice on substituting bars of unsweetened chocolate with semi-sweet, or how to use chocolate substitutes like cocoa powder.

Most search engines give you a break when you cannot remember every single word in a phrase or name that you are seeking. They allow you to use a wild card, an asterisk in place of the word that escapes you. Type " Nestle * cookies" as a phrase and Tollhouse appears (along with Rolo, Quik and Raisinet goodies, too).

Sometimes it seems like overkill to search the entire Web when all you really want is an academic or noncommercial take on a topic. Say you only want results from the .edu domain. Try using the syntax tool called "site:" and restrict the results to those in the .edu domain. (This works with Google, and Teoma, among other engines.)

When using a syntax like "site:" be sure that there is no space between the colon and the next word. If you accidentally put a space there, the search engines will think that "site:" is a word you're looking for.

If you are digging deeply into a topic, it may help to know which sites are linking to the page that you are reading. Knowing those connections can bring you a step closer to understanding the community that has coalesced around your subject.

For example, by typing "link:www" into Google's search box, you'll find other sites like the Chocolate Corner and a list of "Choco-Links."

At AlltheWeb, you do not need to remember to use "link:" syntax. Simply plug the URL into the search window and you will get a link to a list of the 391 pages that link to Chocoholics. But you will also be pointed to sites that contain the URL in their text, pages that are indexed under that URL, information on who owns the URL and an image of how the page used to look. That last option is a link that takes you straight to the WayBack Machine, a service of the Internet Archive, where you can view pages as they were rendered as far back as 1996.

AltaVista and Google News ( offer the ability to search for news articles by time and date, whether your range is the past hour, the past day, the past week or the past month. Google News has more sources (4,000-plus), but while AltaVista has fewer (3,000-plus), its database is deeper, with more than a year's worth of material available. Other options are AlltheWeb, which carries multilingual newspapers; DayPop (, which logs blogs; and NewsNow (, which offers a live feed - the closest thing to watching the wires free.

To find the number (or address) for a Bread & Chocolate bakery in Virginia, type "phonebook:bread & chocolate va" (note the lack of space between "phonebook" and "bread"). Remember to put a state abbreviation after the query; otherwise, Google will give up.

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