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Search The Web Like A Pro

Adapted from content excerpted from the American Express® OPEN Small Business Network


The World Wide Web can be a great source of information for your small business. You can find data about your market, your competitors and your customers. The challenge is knowing where and how to look for it.

The first step to mastering online research is to understand how to take full advantage of Web search tools. Many people find these tools frustrating, because they either don't land pertinent sites, or they give so many hits that the results are unmanageable. This can be remedied if you first learn how these engines work, and how you can use their powerful search features to zero in on the information you need.

Everyone has a different favorite search site, and you will probably find that you use one or two more than the rest. Still, it pays to be familiar with all of them. The leading search sites include:

Click on the tips below to learn more about how you can use Internet search tools to their fullest:

Know the different search sites

Web search sites fall into two basic types -- directories and search engines Directories: These organize Web sites by subject. Users can choose a subject of interest and then browse the list of resources in the category, narrowing their search by the descriptors or subcategories provided by the directory. Directories are very good for finding general information, since you can look at organized lists of sites in the same category. Yahoo! is a prime example of a search directory.

Search Engines: These are very large databases of information related to Web sites that allow you to search for pages that contain keywords you designate. The leading search engines attempt to catalog every page on the Web using "spiders" or "bots" which go out onto the Web and bring back information about the various pages. Due to their vast size, search engines are not useful for general queries, which can result in thousands (or even hundreds of thousands) of hits. However, most contain sophisticated search tools, which, if handled properly, can let you find specific information quickly and easily. Examples of search engines include AltaVista, Excite, Google, Hotbot, and Lycos.

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Understand Boolean commands

If you want to take full advantage of a search engine's power, you need to understand and use the advanced search features many have available. Most of these are based on Boolean commands (also called operators) which are special symbols or words that let you refine and control your searches. The following is a list of the most common commands:

Match Any
Searches for pages containing any of your search words, not all of them; it is often the default setting for many search engines.
Boolean Command: OR (dogs OR cats)
Example: dogs OR cats will bring up all pages that contain the word "dogs" and all pages that contain the word "cats".

Match All
This search yields pages that contain all your search words.
Boolean Command: AND (dogs AND cats)
Boolean Symbol: + (+dogs +cats)
Example: dogs AND cats will bring up pages that contain both the words "dogs" and "cats".

Exclude
The search engine will exclude documents that contain certain words.
Boolean Command: AND NOT (hudson AND NOT river) or NOT (hudson NOT river)
Boolean Symbol: - (hudson -river)
Example: hudson NOT river calls up pages that contain the word "hudson" and do not have the word "river". You would use this kind of search if you were interested in getting information about the old Hudson automobile but didn't want to have to scroll through pages about the Hudson River.

Phrase Searches
Allows you to look for a specific phrase or series or words. Also use this for finding a proper name.
Boolean Command: "" ("credit card")
Example: "credit card" calls up documents with that term, but not documents that might have to do with an author getting credit for developing a greeting card.

Proximity
The search calls up documents that contain keywords that are close to each other. Some let you specify how close they will be.
Boolean Command: NEAR (small NEAR business) or NEAR/# to specify how close in words the phrases must be (small NEAR/10 business means that small must be within 10 words of business).
Boolean Symbol: [ ] ([small business])
Example: small NEAR business would call up articles that contain phrases referring to "small and medium-sized business" which would not show up in a phrase search.

Wildcards
Allows you to search for plurals or variations of a word. It's very useful if you don't know an exact spelling.
Boolean Symbol: * (fund*)
Example: fund* would find pages that contain the words "fund" "funds" and "funding."

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Read search engine help and how-to screens

Unfortunately, every search engine actually operates differently from every other one, so it's critical to understand each one's unique rules. Even the various directories use different schematics and index vocabulary. Take a few minutes up front to glance through the help screens to learn some of these guidelines; it will save you hours in the end. Some things to keep in mind are:

  • What are the default search settings?
  • What Boolean commands or symbols does it use?
  • Does it support multiple word or phrase searches?
  • How does the engine index pages? by entire document? URL? first paragraph? title?
  • Does the engine index every page of a site, or just top-level pages?
  • Are searches case sensitive?

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Look for ways to limit your searches

Some search engines allow you to limit your search by fields, such as the title of a document, a URL, and hyperlinks. This is especially useful if you're looking for a specific home page. For example, if you were looking for the home page of the National Restaurant Association, you could limit your search to the title of the document, making it more likely that you'll turn up the association's home page in a limited return.

Similarly, some sites allow you to search by types of media, such as sounds or images. This way, you don't have to use words like "image" or "picture" in your search to come up with the correct results.

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Make your searches as specific as possible

The more terms you use, the more limited your search will be, and the greater the chance you may have of finding relevant documents. Essentially, you have to think like the page you're seeking. What terms would show up on that page? Try and come up with a complete list; then, if you find you're search does not yield enough results, begin paring back your keywords.

Commonly used words make poor search keywords; in fact, many search engines don't even look for common articles and prepositions like "of" and "the". Try to focus on words and terms that are unique to and highlight the difference in the information you are seeking.

For example, if you're looking for information about small business insurance, don't just go searching for "insurance" since that would yield an unmanageable number of results. Instead, narrow it by looking for as many relevant terms as you can come up with: insurance AND "small business" AND liability AND professional AND product AND "business owner's policy" AND BOP.

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If your search produces no results...

Occasionally, you might find that a search yields zero hits, or that none of the results you get are relevant. This can be frustrating, especially if you know that the information you are seeking is out there, somewhere. If this happens, do some quick troubleshooting:

  • Re-read the search tool's help file to make sure you're using the right rules.
  • Check your spelling.
  • Check to make sure you're using the right Boolean operators and syntax.
  • Try a less specific query.
  • Use synonyms or variations of a word.
  • Go to another search engine and try the search again.

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Use more than one search site

Various search engines have their own search techniques. The more you use them, the more familiar you'll become with their various strengths and weaknesses. You can then choose the right search site depending on the type of information you are seeking.

For example, for a straightforward search that might result in a high volume of matches, begin your search with the most limited site -- either an industry-specific index or a directory like Yahoo!. Then you can expand your search to use one of the engines like AltaVista as you know more specifics about what you're searching for.

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Try meta-search engines

Unlike regular search engines, meta-search engines do not have their own databases of information. Instead, they search using other engines. For example, MetaCrawler searches the databases of AltaVista, Excite, Lycos, WebCrawler and Yahoo, all at the same time. By using multiple databases, you will receive more comprehensive search results. This can save you time; on the other hand, they are often quite slow in posting the results.

Only use meta-search engines for simple searches of one or two words or phrases. They will yield confusing and often faulty results if you use Boolean commands like AND, OR or NOT, or if you put a specific phrase in quotes ("word word") because not all search engines handle these commands the same way.

Meta-search engines include:

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Use your bookmarks

If you find a site and you're likely to use it again, bookmark it. Even the most disorganized bookmark file can be more convenient than a search engine for accessing a useful resource.

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