Lost in Cyberspace
Search Engines
© 1998 by H.B. Koplowitz

Finding what you are looking for in cyberspace can be like searching for a library book without a card catalogue. Search engine websites try to be like card catalogues for the Internet, but they have a tough task. Websites are created faster than the search engines can catalogue them, and they change addresses more often than a deadbeat dad. And webmasters use all kinds of tricks to fool search engines so that when you type in your search words, their site pops up instead of the one you're looking for.

For example, a new search engine called "SearchKing" <searchking.com> lets users vote on the quality of their search results, from "very helpful" to "not at all." The theory is that over time the irrelevant sites will be weeded out by users and the most worthwhile sites will show up first. But when I tried to find the company that makes Viagra by typing "Viagra," the first search result wasn't exactly Pfizer Labs. "Viagra It's Not But Passion's Fire Works For Both Men & Women," was the site's description. In fact, the first SEVEN search results were for the same "Viagra It's Not" website.

Also in the top 10 was "Viagra, Sex, Men - A Winning Combo! Click here to visit our web site if you want to buy Viagra on the Internet." But when I clicked it was a dead link, as the fly-by-night operation had already moved. Might some of the "voters" have been webmasters boosting the  ranking of their websites on the search engine? Which is not to criticize "SearchKing," since I got similar results when I typed "Viagra" into the more established search engines.

Search engines use various tactics to combat the webmasters. "Yahoo!" <www.yahoo.com>, the first Web index, is not technically a search engine because it employs human editors to filter websites and categorize them by subject. Thus, Yahoo sites tend to be "on task," but not a wide selection.

Using the opposite strategy, "HotBot" <www.hotbot.com> has no reviews or directories, but indexes more sites than just about any other search engine. It is often the critic's choice in reviews, and more obscure sites will show up there.

Other popular search engines include "AltaVista" <www.altavista.digital.com>, affiliated with Yahoo; America Online's version of Yahoo's directory, "AOL NetFind," affiliated with the search engine "Excite" <www.excite.com>; and "WebCrawler" <webcrawler.com>, also owned by Excite. I'd explain how search engines work, except I don't know myself, and it wouldn't help anyway. So instead, here's a few general search engine tips:

Whichever search engine you use, choosing the right keywords is the most important part. More an art than a science, uncommon words are better than common words. Common words like "Viagra" tend to be too general. Had I used a less-common word, like "Pfizer," I would have found the Viagra maker quicker.

Search engines are dumber than a box of rocks, so if you ask one to look up bathing suits, it will find sites on bathing and sites on suits. But if you enclose a phrase with quote marks, many search engines know to look for those words together, which increases your odds of finding a site with "bathing suits." This is especially important with names. Rolling Stones, even Rolling AND Stones, won't necessarily lead you to Rolling Stones websites, while "Rolling Stones" will.

Just because the site you are looking for isn't in the first 10 hits doesn't mean it won't show up as the 50th link, and just because you can't find the site with one search engine doesn't mean it won't pop up right away with another.

And finally, as a cyber columnist I should have known this, but only in researching this piece did I discover that the 4.0 and higher versions of the Netscape and Internet Explorer Web browsers have built-in search capabilities.

With Internet Explorer, you can type "go," "find," or "?," plus a search word or phrase into the address bar (where you usually see "http://etc.") and retrieve a list of hits from Yahoo. With Netscape Navigator, type a plus (+) sign and a space before a word or phrase in the address bar, and Navigator chooses a search engine and displays the results.

And then sometimes you just get lucky. When I typed "Viagra" into the address bar of my Netscape browser, I forgot to put in the plus sign. So instead of looking up Viagra sites on a search engine, it took me straight to the Web address www.viagra.com, which turned out to be "Pfizer Viagra, The FDA Approved Impotence Pill," an information page from Pfizer Labs. And so it goes in cyberspace.

© 1998 By H.B. Koplowitz, all rights reserved.