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What is a Search Engine?

Well, there isn't one master index, but there are several very good partial indexes, and in many cases you will find more information than you need by using only one of them. In this article, we'll look at the most popular search sites on the Internet and how to use them.

What's Available?

There are hundreds of search sites on the Internet, but the "big players," the ones that get the lion's share of the business, are the following:

These top six represent two kinds of search sites: search engines and Web directories. With a search engine, you type in what you want to search for, and the system consults an index of the Web and pulls up addresses for all pages that match your search. In contrast, a Web directory lists categories from which you can select. You choose a category, then a narrower one, and so on, until you have narrowed down what you want to a list of a few sites. Both methods are useful, and some sites combine the two technologies, as you will shortly see.

If you don't find what you want at any of these sites, visit Netscape's Net Search page for links to other search sites, including specialized ones for businesses, individuals, files, and so on. If you use Netscape Navigator as your browser, you can move quickly to this page by clicking the Net Search button on your screen.

Each search site is a little different. The basic procedure for using each one is the same, but when you get into the more complicated stuff, like entering complex search criteria, each site has its own rules. (We'll get into that in the sections that follow for the individual sites.) If you don't have this book handy when you're using a site, refer to the online instructions or Help document for each search engine.

How DO Those Search Engines Get the Site Listings?

There are many ways that a search engine site comes up with their listings, but one of the coolest is through the use of bots. You can think of bots as Internet robot surfers that travel the Internet, constantly checking out sites and recording information for their masters. (Remember Voyager in the Star Trek episode and the second Star Trek movie? Kind of like that.) They make a note of the page's address and keywords, and send it back home for inclusion in the index. This is great because no human could ever keep up with all the millions of pages and their ever-changing addresses.

The reason a page's address or description in the index may not be up-to-date might be that the bot has not been back to visit that page again since its address or content changed.

bots—Internet robot surfers that travel the Internet, constantly checking out sites and recording information for their masters.


As we enter the world of cyberspace searching, we'll start with my personal favorite search engine, Lycos (

Lycos offers two levels of searching: basic and custom. You start out at the basic level, where you can type one or more words to search for. For example, suppose that I was looking for Shetland Sheepdog information. I would type Shetland Sheepdog in the text box, and then click the Go Get It button. The results appear on a new page.

Notice that Lycos found 2074 pages that matched Shetland, Sheepdog, or a variation of one of those words. Because Lycos arranges the found pages by the quality of the match, the pages that contain both Shetland and Sheepdog appear first—which is good because then I don't have to wade through pages on Shetland ponies and English Sheepdogs.

To return to the controls and enter different criteria, just click the Back button on your browser.

For many people, the basic Lycos search is all they will ever need. However, experienced users may prefer to use the Custom Search instead. To move to that screen, click the Custom Search button on the basic search page (or jump to it from anywhere on the Web). You have a lot of extra options for refining your search here.

Following are the available Custom Search choices:

  • Search—You can choose The Web, Pictures, Sounds, or By Subject. You also have this choice on the basic search page. I usually leave this set to The Web since I am almost always looking for Web pages.

  • For—This is the same text box as on the basic search page, where you enter the word(s) to search for.

  • Search options—There are two:

    Number of terms to match The default is Match any term (OR), which is the same as the basic search does, but you can choose a specific number of terms or Match all terms (AND).

    Match quality The default is Loose match, which is the same as for the basic search. This allows the most leeway in searching. You can be stricter about how relevant a page has to be to your keyword by choosing one of the other match types (Fair, Good, Close, or Strong).

  • Display options—again, there are two:

    Results per page The default is 10 (same as for basic searches), but you can choose 20, 30, or 40. The more results per page you specify, the longer the page takes to appear.

    Results The default is Standard, which provides a few lines about each site, but you can choose Summary (shorter descriptions) or Detailed (longer descriptions).

Is that all? Well, almost. There are some symbols you can enter with your search terms to narrow down the results to exactly what you want:

  • Place a minus sign before a word to exclude it. For example, to search for banks (financial institutions), I would want to exclude other meanings of "bank," so I might enter banks –river.

  • Put a period after a word for an exact match. For example, to search for bank but not banker or banking, I might enter bank. in the text box.

  • Use a dollar sign to indicate a fragment. For example, gard$ would find pages containing gardener, gardenia, gardens, and so on.


While Lycos is purely a search engine, Yahoo! ( is the opposite: it's purely a Web directory. (The other sites we'll look at later in this article are combinations of the two.)

The main feature of Yahoo! is the categories list. You click on a category, and then on a subcategory, and so on, until you arrive at the topic you're interested in. You may find some other topics along the way too that you hadn't even thought of!

For those who don't have time to wade through categories, Yahoo! provides a text box where you can enter the keywords you're searching for, but it searches only its own small directory of sites. Yahoo! doesn't even attempt to maintain a master index of the whole Web. But on the plus side, the sites that Yahoo! does list are generally the "good" ones. Yahoo! is helpful when you're looking for quality rather than quantity in a search.

Whether you choose to use the categories or the keywords depends on why you are looking up a particular topic. For example, suppose that I'm interested in any magazines for small businesses owners. Because I'm looking for a broad area of knowledge, and don't know the names of the magazines, Yahoo!'s categories would be best. I would take the following path through them:

Business and Economy --> Small Business Information --> Magazines

Such a search brought me the names of 16 magazines.

But suppose that I want all the information I can find about Shetland Sheepdogs from Yahoo!. I know that it will probably be scattered in several categories, because Shetland Sheepdog breeding is a business for some and a hobby for others, and pet ownership is a separate hobby too, and animal care is separate from any of those. This would be a good time to use Yahoo!'s keyword search. So I enter Shetland Sheepdog in the text box, and I get the results.

Notice, Yahoo! found sites in three categories: two for breeders and one for the breed itself. It found a total of only 15 matches, so obviously we aren't getting the same quantity of hits that we do with a real search engine. Yahoo!, however, has a built-in link with one of the better search engine sites: AltaVista. At the bottom of your Yahoo! search results, you'll find an AltaVista link. Clicking on it will take you to the AltaVista search results for the same keywords that you entered in Yahoo!.


AltaVista ( is a lot like Lycos in its functionality; it's a full-service search engine. Like Lycos, it comes in two varieties: basic and advanced.

With the Basic form, you search the Web or Usenet (choose one from the drop-down list). Usenet is the system that handles most newsgroups on the Internet, so you would choose that only if you were looking for newsgroup data. Most folks, however, will want to stick with the Web.

You search by keyword, entering one or more keywords in the text box. The basic search is an OR search—that is, it finds pages that use at least one of your keywords but not necessarily all of them. As with Lycos, however, AltaVista lists pages that match all the keywords first. For results, you specify Standard, Compact, or Detailed.

Where AltaVista really shines is its Advanced search engine, where experienced users can enter complex criteria to pinpoint exactly what they want to search for. To go to it, click the Advanced button at the top of the basic search form, or go to

To teach you how to use the Advanced search screen, there is an eight-page Help document available at the AltaVista site; just click the Help button at the top of the page to access it. Here's a quick summary of the options:

  • Use standard AND and OR operators, as in the following examples:

    tree AND forest finds pages with both words

    tree OR forest finds pages with either word

  • Use quotation marks around multi-word phrases, as in the following:

    "San Juan" finds pages with the phrase "San Juan" but not pages containing both the words "San" and "Juan" separately.

    "Shetland Sheepdog" finds pages with the phrase "Shetland Sheepdog" but not pages containing "Shetland" and "Sheepdog" separately.

  • The NEAR operator makes sure words are within ten words of each other on the page, as in the following:

    tree NEAR forest finds pages on which those two words are within ten words of each other.

  • Use NOT to exclude words or phrases, as in the following example:

    tree NOT forest finds pages that contain the word "tree" but not the word "forest"

In addition to search criteria, you can also specify ranking so that certain search terms have more weight than others. To do this, repeat one of the search terms in the Ranking field box, as in the following example:

  • To find pages containing either tree or forest, with pages that contain tree at top of the list, put tree OR forest in the Search field and tree in the Ranking field.

  • To find pages containing Shetland Sheepdog and Breeders, with an emphasis on the breeder pages, put "Shetland Sheepdog" AND Breeders in the Search field and Breeders in the Ranking field.

Finally, you can enter a range of dates in the Start Date and Finish Date fields, and pages found will be within that range. This might be helpful, for example, to find only pages that have been updated in the last 30 days—set the Start Date to 30 days ago and the Finish Date to today.

There is even more you can do with AltaVista's search criteria, but the preceding should get you started. For complete instructions, click the Help button on any AltaVista page.


Infoseek ( combines a powerful search engine (such as Lycos and AltaVista) with a large Web directory (such as Yahoo!). On its basic search screen, you can enter search keywords or select from any of dozens of categories.

Given two equally good tools at this site, which should you use? As with Yahoo!, it depends on what kind of information you are looking for. If you want to find all instances of specific words, and the context doesn't matter, use the search engine. To find all information about a specific bookstore, for example, search for the name as a keyword. To find a list of bookstores in your area, however, use the categories:

Arts --> Books --> Bookstores --> 

The standard search engine on Infoseek is called UltraSmart. It's the simple search form. There is also UltraSeek, a more powerful form you can access by clicking the UltraSeek button on the page.

As with the other search engines, there is syntax you can use to narrow down your searches on Infoseek. Click the Tips link on the Infoseek page to learn all about it through the Help system. Following are the highlights:

  • Use commas to separate phrases. For example, if you are searching for Shetland Sheepdogs or Rottweilers, use Shetland Sheepdog, Rottweiler.

  • Use quotation marks or hyphens to show words that must be adjacent. For example, to search for New Riders Publishing as a phrase, use "New Riders Publishing" or New-Riders-Publishing.

  • Put a minus sign in front of a word that must not appear. For example, to search for Hudson but not the Hudson River, use Hudson –River. Make sure you leave a space before the minus sign, or the search engine may think you want the phrase "Hudson River", as in the preceding example!

  • Put a plus sign in front of a word that must appear. For example, to find information about Dalmatians' care or breeding, use +Dalmatians, care, breeding.

You can also perform advanced field searching with Infoseek, such as finding text only in links or only in URLs. For complete information about this, see

More is Better!
In this article, you're learning how to use several of the major search sites, not just one or two. Why would you want to use more than one search engine? Well, as I explained in the sidebar earlier about bots, each search site has its own bots that roam the Internet and collect the addresses of sites. Different bots go different places, so each search site will give a different list of hits for particular keywords. There will likely be a lot of overlap, but not 100 percent overlap, since one site's bots have been to different places than another site's.


Excite ( is another dual-purpose search site. It has both a search engine and a Web directory, like the other sites you've been reading about here, but with some nice additional features.

The Web directory at Excite is not as large as the ones at Infoseek or Yahoo!, but it does have one important extra: the sites listed in the Excite Web directory have been reviewed and rated by Excite personnel. When you use the Excite directory to learn about a site, you get more information than just a brief description—you actually get a reviewer's opinion of the site's overall quality and usefulness.

The search engine component at Excite is special too. As you can see, each site found in response to a keyword search has a link called [More Like This]. This allows you to show the search engine examples of the kind of sites you want to find, and narrow down your search more precisely in that way. For example, the second entry contains information about the breed standard for Shetland Sheepdogs. Suppose that's the type of information I'm looking for, as opposed to ads for specific breeders. If I click on the [More Like This] link next to that entry, the results page changes to show links similar to the chosen one.

The Excite search engine also enables you to search the Excite Web directory itself. Just open the drop-down list on the Excite search page (it's set to World Wide Web by default) and change the setting to Excite Web Site Reviews.

Here's a summary of the search operators Excite uses:

  • Use AND and OR as with other sites; AND forces both terms to appear (apples AND oranges), while OR finds pages where either term appears (apples OR oranges).

  • To find pages where a word does not appear, use AND NOT. For instance, to find pages with tree but not bush, use tree AND NOT bush. You can also use a minus sign if you prefer, as in tree –bush.

  • Use parentheses to group options in multiple-operator queries. For instance, to find pages that contain apple and either orange or grape, use apple AND (orange OR grape).


Magellan (, by the same folks who bring you Excite, is yet another combination site, with both a Web directory and a search engine. You can use Magellan's search text box to search for the following:

  • Entire database Returns hits from all over the Web, like a normal search engine.

  • Rated and reviewed sites only Returns hits only from Magellan's Web directory.

Magellan's special claim to fame is the fact that you can screen out adult-oriented sites with the Green Light feature. The main Magellan search page ( contains a Green Light Sites Only check box. If you mark that, the search returns only sites that Magellan has reviewed and determined to be family-friendly.

This feature makes Magellan extremely helpful if you are searching for serious research information about a smut-prone topic like teen sex. With a regular search engine you would have to wade through hundreds of LIVE NUDE HOT TEENS pages, but with Magellan's Green Light feature you can eliminate such pages from your search, and find what you're really looking for—articles about how to talk to your teenagers about sex.

The NRP World Wide Web Yellow Pages

Yes, it's an online version of this book! Actually this site is a "two-fer" like some of the others—you can look up sites from the book in categories (like Yahoo!), or you can search a real Web index (like Lycos and some of the others). You'll find it at

The WWW Yellow Pages site works just like the other sites you've seen so far in this article—just type in what you want to search for and click Search, or wade through the categories listed under the search text box.

Macmillan Publishing's SuperSeek

With all the different search engines and sites you've learned about in this article so far, don't you wish there was a single page where you could use all the search sites at once? Well, there is, and it's brought to you by none other than Macmillan Publishing, the parent company of New Riders Publishing (who brings you this book). It's called SuperSeek (

Just enter the search string you want to find in the text box provided, and choose where you want to search:

  • Information Superlibrary FAQ and Bookstore This confines the search to the Macmillan Publishing site. Use this to find out if Macmillan Publishing offers any books on the subject.

  • NRP WWW Yellow Pages, Yahoo, Infoseek and more Select this to search a variety of search engines.

  • USENET News Choose this to search newsgroups.

Click Search, and the search is on! If your browser supports frames, you'll see a multi-frame display, with a different search engine's results in each pane.

You aren't limited to the four search engines in these panes; notice the list of search engines below the four panes. Just click on one of those names to jump directly to that search engine's results for the search words you have already entered.

Other Search Sites

Between the seven sites reviewed so far in this article, you should be able to find plenty of hits on whatever topic you are looking for. But just in case you need something more specific, check out these additional search sites:

  • The Electric Library ( Here you can search books, magazines, newspapers, TV and radio transcripts, and other media.

  • Four11 ( Search for an individual person's e-mail address, street address, and/or telephone number.

  • GTE SuperPages ( Use the online GTE Yellow Pages, use their Web site search engine, or browse their classified ads.

  • SHAREWARE.COM ( At this site, you can search for shareware files to download.

  • DisInformation ( A search engine, but the real gems here are the odd and twisted sites recommended in their Web directory.

  • WhoWhere? ( Another site where you can search for a person's e-mail address.

  • Bigfoot ( Another individual address search site. This one boasts 100 million White Pages listings and 8 million e-mail addresses.

Good Luck!

Now that you've had a look at what search engines and Web directories can do for you, dive right in! Try out each of the sites I've told you about, and see which ones work best for you. But be careful—it's easy to get interested in some side topic you discover and find that you've spent your entire afternoon looking at pages that had nothing to do with your original topic. Have fun!




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