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Searching the Internet can be a difficult and time-consuming process. Sometimes you have to take an hour or more and sift through hundreds of useless pages before you find something useful. This page contains instructions, tips and tricks which will help you refine and speed up the searching process.

When searching, it doesn't hurt to follow three simple steps:

Step 1: Use the Proper Search Engine

Different search engines are suited to different tasks. Some are better at finding information on general topics while others are good at drilling down and finding information on esoteric subjects. The first step is to decide which search engine you need to use.

Yahoo is often the best place to start a search. While it usually won't give you much in the way of specifics, it does an excellent job of categorizing pages under topical headings. Often, if you find a page with something you like on it, you can find similar ones listed under the same heading.

WebCrawler is also good at turning up pages on fairly general subjects. It doesn't categorize things like Yahoo, but it usually does return an excellent selection of pages on general topics.

On the opposite end of the scale, AltaVista and HotBot are both good at finding pages on more arcane subjects. They usually don't do very well if you feed them a general keyword (i.e. computer), but they can be invaluable at finding information on, say, the American bullfrog.

Excite, Infoseek and Lycos all sit in the middle of the spectrum and can prove useful if the others don't. It is usually best to start on one end-either AltaVista/HotBot for specific subjects or Yahoo/WebCrawler for general topics, and then move to Excite, Infoseek and Lycos if necessary.

MetaCrawler is a specialized "meta" search engine. It takes your query and sends it to several popular search engines, and then compiles the results that come back, presenting them all on one screen. The process takes a bit longer but usually produces superior results.

Filez is another specialized search engine. It searches for downloadable files in FTP sites all over the world. If you are looking for an old computer program or a file with research data in it, you should try this engine. Just remember you have to know the name of the file: Filez can't search for content.

Step 2: Ask the Right Question

A search engine can only find what you need if you ask the right question. The more you define what you are looking for, the more the search engine will be able to return useful results. For example, if you wanted information on Netscape's recent stock market performance, you wouldn't enter "Netscape" and hope you found a page with stock information on it. Instead, you'd want to be much more specific. You might enter "Netscape stock" or "Netscape IPO".

Here are a few tips to help you search:

  • Remember to spell things correctly.
  • Try to think up unusual words or short phrases that accurately describe your topic--be specific. If you don't find something on your first attempt, use other words or phrases and try again.
  • Use Boolean functions, such as AND, OR, NOT--but don't forget to read each search engine's instructions to learn how it uses such functions first.
  • Eliminate common words such as the, a, or of.

Step 3: Use Different Search Engines

In the end, no matter how well you phrase your query, some search engines may not turn up anything useful. Even if one search engine does return helpful web pages, it never hurts to try a second engine. Oftentimes, you'll get amazingly different results.

If, at long last, you can't find what you need on the Internet, you may want to turn to a more old-fashioned method. Head over to your local library and curl up in a corner with a book.

Good Luck!