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Using Search Engines Well
Lisa Cahoon, Virtual Advantage New Media & Marketing 


Using Search Engines Well (Or How to Find a Needle in a Thousand Virtual Haystacks)
By Lisa Cahoon, Virtual Advantage New Media & Marketing Inc.
(from the Seminar "Surfing the 'Net is Sew Fun.")

When I started my first web site, www.GetCreativeShow.com  in 1997, there were already thousands (and maybe millions) of craft and sewing related sites online but few were "commercial," meaning designed to advertise and sell products and/or services. Many of the popular sites online were simply information resources that had been built by sharing and caring individuals who wanted to connect with other like-minded creative people. And so browsing through a list of search engine results for a simple keyword like "crafts," although daunting because of the sheer quantity of sites, yielded many gems of sites that were packed with information, and not simply advertisements for products.

Although it might seem counter-productive that a web designer like myself would prefer to find "information" rather than advertising online, I still like to browse for the sheer fun of learning something new, or researching a topic of interest. However, in the five years since I began my own Internet quest, the landscape has changed online, from one developed by individuals sharing their knowledge and creating communities strictly based on joint interests, to one more obviously dominated by the corporate need to make money, sell products, and otherwise pursue the interests of business.

What does this have to do with using search engines well, or even at all? Well, if you've typed in just about any keyword search lately, you'll notice that the top results are usually "sponsored" sites. That may be delicately put, but it means that the site paid for placement for that particular keyword search or related searches. And so, some of the lovingly created gems of knowledge that shaped the original Internet landscape have been lost, buried beneath a more profitable and better-funded wave of corporate and business generated sites.

There are other reasons to learn how to use search engines well. It's hard enough to find a needle in a haystack. How about looking in hundreds, thousands, maybe millions of haystacks for one needle? You'd need a very good metal detector! The simple fact is that our lives are becoming increasingly inundated with information, and the Internet is becoming one of our main resources for work and play; whether it is researching a professional project for work or school, or looking for a new tuna casserole recipe!

I recently taught a seminar on how to use search engines. Here are some of the tips I shared below. These will work on most search engines. None are rocket science, and perhaps will make your life a little easier, or at the very least, help you find that needle!


Search any or match any (go to the advanced search page on some search engines) - most search engines will perform this type of search by default. They will list the pages that include all your search terms first, and then some of your search terms. For example if your search is for tailoring with fusible interfacings - the default search will look for web pages first that match all those terms: tailoring, fusible, interfacing (not necessarily in that order or together) and then web pages with some of the terms that match. So you might get pages with fusible but not tailoring and vice versa.

 Search all - A few search engines perform a "match all" search by default (all of your search terms are included in the result.) But most search engines support the + sign to do this search. For example, if you want a page that includes fusible interfacings and tailoring information, use the search terms fusible + interfacing + tailoring. In this way you will exclude pages that don't exactly match this criteria. This is called search engine math.

Search for some information but not other information - If you are getting many unrelated pages in your search results, try subtracting the terms you want to exclude. For example, if you want to find information on fusible interfacings, but NOT tailoring, you could make your search term fusible + interfacing - tailoring.

Search title - If you want to just search the title tags of web pages, you can use the word "title" before your search term. For example, your search would look like this title: tailoring with fusible interfacing. The drawback with searching title tags is many web pages do not even have title tags or are inadequately named.

Search all the pages in a particular site - If you only want to see pages in, for example www.getcreativeshow.com  you can use the search term host:getcreativeshow.com. This search would bring up ALL the pages in GetCreativeShow.com. To be more specific, you could ask for all pages that include, for example, zippers by using the command host:getcreativeshow.com zippers (note: this search would bring you 18 pages on GetCreativeShow.com!)

Wild cards - the asterisk symbol * is a wild card. This allows you to search for variations on words, like plurals. For example quilt* would find all sites with the terms quilts, quilting, quilted, etc.

Phrase Searching -- Try enclosing your search terms in quotes if you are looking for a particular phrase or combination of terms. For example "tailoring with fusible interfacing" will likely give you more specific results than tailoring with fusible interfacing.

Combine Methods -- You can combine many of the methods above for more effective searching.

Use Boolean commands. Similar to using the + sign above, using AND or AND NOT in capital letters, will often narrow your search down.

Please note: the above tips will not work on ALL search engines, as each engine is different. There are many more advanced searching techniques using Boolean commands. Check out for tips on specific engines (includes links to several engines) http://www.unf.edu/library/guides/search.html 


Bookmark pages that you find into organize folders. Keep a folder for sites that include link pages or link directories. These can be a gold mine of information!

Use specific keywords wherever you can. For example, if you are looking for machine embroidery tips using Sulky thread - try using that exact phrase as your search term, not just machine embroidery tips.

Find pages that are NOT indexed in search engines! Peel back the layers of directories on a site to find unindexed pages. For example, removing the last file name up to the / in a URL, will often bring you to a parent directory or index page that may or may not be indexed. 

Popular Search Engine and Directory Sites in no particular order:

MSN Search - http://www.search.msn.com  
Google - http://www.google.com 
Go - http://www.go.com  (Infoseek)
Altavista - http://www.altavista.com/  
Ask Jeeves - http://www.askjeeves.com/  
Lycos - http://www.lycos.com
HotBot/ Lycos - http://hotbot.lycos.com/  
Search AOL - http://search.aol.com
Overture - http://www.overture.com/  
LookSmart - http://www.looksmart.com/
WebCrawler - http://webcrawler.com/ 
Yahoo - http://www.yahoo.com/  
Metacrawler - http://www.metacrawler.com/  
Galaxy - http://www.galaxy.com/ 
All the Web - http://www.alltheweb.com/  
Dogpile - http://www.dogpile.com/  
Unified Search engine - http://www.he.net/~kamus/useen.htm  
Search Engine Search - http://www.search.com/search.html  
Librarian's Index to the Internet - http://lii.org/  
ilor - http://www.ilor.com/ 
Oingo - http://www.oingo.com/  
Open Directory Project - http://dmoz.org/ 

Lisa Cahoon is an Internet marketing and web-site design consultant based in Mission, B.C. Her business, Virtual Advantage New Media & Marketing, Inc., designs and develops independent web sites.

Lisa also publishes GetCreativeShow.com, www.GetCreativeShow.com

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