Searching, Searching, Searching ...

What a Search Engine Is

Among the most valuable free services of the internet are the services that tell you where everything else is: search engines like Altavista and Hotbot, directories like Yahoo and The Open Directory Project.

"Search engines" are a randomized collection of records that can be sorted into many different orders; "Directories" are categorized lists, although they can be searched. They work slightly differently, although the difference has more effect on those entering a record than on those trying to find one.

What Search Engines Do

When you enter a search question in Altavista, it does not scan the entire Internet for you. (Don't laugh; I believed this, when I started using search engines.) (I asked you not to laugh!)

What a search engine does is scan its database: all the records of site information entered into it, each tagged with key words, title, description, and other hopefully informative data.

If you enter "trout fishing" "washington state" "fly fishing" for instance, the sites on the top of the return list should be the ones that have all three of those phrases in them, probably more than once, and will be useful for you if you are interested in fly fishing for trout in Washington State.

What Search Engines Don't Do

Have you ever searched the online catalog at the library for all books in a mystery series, to find big holes where the librarian had not tagged the book as "A Travis McGee novel"? Or done research on pen-and-pencil drawing, but it was not easy to find pen-and-pencil artists because that was not how books about them were catalogued?

A search engine has the same drawbacks. The results coming out are controlled by how records were catalogued going in.

Take Two

Search results depend on how the search engine catalogues things, and all engines catalogue differently: now you know one of the big reasons there are so many search engines. Users tend to favor the engines that think like they do, or that favor the same sites they like. There are search engines completely of real estate sites, for instance, or completely of art sites.

It often helps to try your search in more than one engine.


The sheer number of engines out there can be overwhelming. The size of the Web and the number of submissions is overwhelming for most engines; they usually have a backlog and are always running to catch up.

Getting Something Free?

Even the Real Change Computer Workshop has to figure out a way to bring in funds or we fold and members don't get to use the computers for free any more. Most free services on the Web are selling you, to advertisers, as a target audience. This motivates them to increase and improve their services to pull you in where you can see the ads.

This is one of the things that search engines do, but it's not the most controversial thing. Many search engines have also begun selling top placement in search results on specific keywords. If you sell fly fishing products, for instance, you can buy the phrase "fly fishing", and whenever anyone searches on that phrase your site is the first they find -- even though the greatest fly fisherman in history has compiled a 2,000 page searchable encyclopedia on fly fishing and all you have is a form to send for your mail-order catalog.

Take Three

For now, your most likely way to find what you are searching for on the net is:
  1. Tailor your search well. Instead of just "fly fishing", insist on "fly fishing" "history" "materials" "methods" "tying" "expert". More on this
  2. Try your search in multiple search engines. Listing
  3. Evaluate the results -- not all information on the Internet is created equal. Evaluating information sources
  4. Once you find a good site, bookmark them and follow their links.

Helping Out

You can also help other people find good sites:

Any Suggestions?
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