Seven Steps Toward Better Searching

To become a web Jedi master, you need to become facile with at least one search engine... so facile that doing an effective search becomes completely automatic. This state will come fairly quickly as long as you practice frequently.

The first step is to bookmark and become familiar with the interface and help pages associated with each search engine you use. A good comprehensive engine out there at the moment seems to be AltaVista and Google.

Most people use a search engine by simply typing a few words into the query box and then scrolling through whatever comes up. Sometimes their choice of words ends up narrowing the search unduly and causing them not to find what they're looking for. More often the end result of the search is a haystack of off-target web pages that must be combed through.

You can become a better searcher by simply mastering 7 tricks in AltaVista. To help you remember them, think of a sentence so goofy you'll never get it out of your mind:

My plump starfish quickly lowered Lincoln's tie.

What does it all mean? You'll know when you've completed the exercise that follows.

You can access the AltaVista simple search here, and there is a simple search help page that you should look over now, before we start. Bookmark both of them so that you can get back to them at any point.

Print out the accompanying worksheet NEW and record the number of matches you find for each search so that when you review you can see the patterns of widening and narrowing your search.

Look for something like this and record the number of hits you get for each search.


Simple Search Practice

Include and Exclude (+ and -)

My plump The first two basic tools to practice with the simple search are the use of + and - to include or exclude words. For example, if you wanted to find sites about Atlantis, the purported lost continent, and you wanted to eliminate all pages that were about Atlantis, the space shuttle.

Note: There's no space between the + or - and the word, but there is a space between words.

You'd type
+Atlantis -shuttle

(i.e., +Atlantis space -shuttle)

(i.e., +Atlantis nospace -shuttle)

Try each of the searches now, and record how many sites you find.

As you do each search, take note of what kinds of things turn up. Notice that the more specific the terms you include and exclude, the more focused your search.

# Matches



+Atlantis -shuttle


+Atlantis -shuttle +continent

+Atlantis -shuttle +continent -film -movie

NEWSFLASH! March 7, 2001. Altavista made a change in their search engine so that the + is always assumed. (That is, they assume that if you typed in a word, you really want it included). Some other search engines still use the +, so we're keeping it in this page for now.

We'll have to come up with a new mnemonic soon to replace Plump :-)

Thanks to Cheryl Nielsen of Clear Lake, Iowa for alerting me to the change!

Use the Wildcard (*)

Starfish A common mistake people make is to inadvertantly narrow their search too much by excluding variations on a word they're looking for. For example, if you typed in +mushrooms, you'd miss all those pages that just had the singular word mushroom on them.

The * wildcard stands for any letter(s). The wildcard is also useful for catching other variations on a word such as different forms of a verb.

In general, never search for the plural of a word. Use the wildcard and get both the singular and plural forms.

# Matches




surf* -surface*

Use "Quotes" to Look for a Phrase

Quickly If you type a sequence of words in as a query, AltaVista will look for documents that contain any of those words. If you want the words to hang together as a phrase, you should put double quotes around them.

Try these:

AltaVista recently added a phrase-guessing element to its algorithms. If you type a few words in, and those words are commonly found hanging together in its index, it will assume that you're searching for them as a phrase even if you don't put quotes around them. If you're looking for a phrase that is not common, though, you'll need the quotes.

The ability to search for phrases can be surprisingly useful. Do you suspect that something your student turned in was plagiarized, or at least heavily borrowed without attribution? Type in a phrase or two from the paper and see if it turns up elsewhere! You can also check to see if your own work is being copied without your permission.

# Matches

San Diego

"San Diego"

merits of laziness

"merits of laziness"

Another use for this feature: stamping out urban legends. Next time you get an e-mail warning you about a repressive new law about to pass or a vicious computer virus about to attack, check it out before passing on misinformation to others.

use lower case (usually)

Lowered AltaVista pays attention to any capital letters you type into a query. If you search for Octopus, it will only find documents in which it's spelled that way. In general, unless you're after a particular spelling, use all lower case.

Try these:

# Matches






Use the link: Tag to Find Pages Linked to Another Page

Lincoln's Suppose you found the absolutely perfect page about life in Ancient Egypt, and it's located at You suspect that any other web pages out there that contain a link to that page would also contain things that would interest your students.

If you put all or part of the URL of the page after "link:", you'll get a list of pages that are linked to the one you found useful.

# Matches


Try these and see how many other pages are linked to the Ancient Egypt page and to the WebQuest Page. (In fact, because Altavista has indexed the page you're reading now, you'll see it among the Egypt links as well.)

Use the title: Tag to Focus Your Search

Tie A simple search will find a word anywhere on the web page. To locate pages that are primarily about one thing, look for pages that have that thing in their title. The result is much more tightly focused.

Note: There can be a space between title: and the next word or not. It doesn't seem to matter.

Try these:

# Matches





So, to recap... remembering this sentence will help you to remember the seven techniques you just experimented with:












lower case



"phrases in quotes"
find pages linked
find words in the title

If you can keep these seven words in mind, you'll be a much better searcher than you were a few minutes ago!

If you'd like to check your understanding, try the Seven Steps quiz.

And to add to your bag of tricks, you might also want to check out the Specialized Search Engines page.