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16. Tailor search engines to goals

By Mark Alberstat

Q. I thought some columns might usefully focus on search engines. I usually just type a name in either the MSN search bar or the Google search bar but wonder if there are not more sophisticated engines or how to use then better.

J.W. Beveridge,

IN THE TIME it takes you to read this short column, thousands of Internet searches will have taken place. McAnerin Networks Inc., a Canadian-based Web site promotion company, estimates that there are more than 319 million search queries each month; that's about 127 searches every second.

Gobbling up almost 97 per cent of those queries are Google, Yahoo, MSN, AOL, Go Network, Excite, Altavista and Lycos. These are the names you would expect to see in a ranking of search engines, the biggies with more hits than you could aim at a well-formed search.

The question arises, however: Which search engine is best for you and how do the main ones differ from each other? A few years ago this was a simpler question than it is today, with seemingly rival search engine companies buying each other and morphing into larger sites with sponsored links.

The sites that users go to can be divided into two basic categories - directories and engines.

Directories, such as Yahoo, are based on a hierarchical database that you can either search through or drill down into. If you were looking for sites featuring mathematical probability puzzles - and don't we all? - you would drill down into the Science directory, then into the Mathematics directory, then into the Probability directory. Although this example is only three levels deep, some categories are much deeper than that.

Directories are great when you have a vague notion of the site you are looking for and want to do a bit of searching yourself. When you send a query through directories, you are searching text that appears in that site's title and description and not its contents.

Search engines, such as Google and Altavista, use electronic robots to crawl through the Web, cataloguing the information they find and organizing it into a database back at their home, which you can then search. Because these crawlers are always working and there are lots of them, these sites tend to have a larger chunk of the World Wide Web in their databases than do the directory sites.

Engine-based sites are ideal when you know exactly what you are looking for, such as "cross stitch patterns featuring cats." If, however, you simply were interested in cross-stitch as a hobby, a directory site such as Yahoo would work best.

Metasearch sites have become more popular in the past couple of years because of their power to search several of the top search sites, both engines and directory types, with a single query.

These sites have their uses but can be frustrating as they only display a small number of the results from each of the sites they query, so the result you may be looking for could get left behind, leaving you to search again at another site.

If you are curious about what other people are searching for on the Web, Metaspy has two interesting services for you, featuring a Sherlock Holmes character that describes what you may be getting yourself into. The two services are filtered and unfiltered search strings. The unfiltered is not for family viewing. The list of 10 search strings refreshes every 15 seconds and represents only a small number of the searches being performed at Metacrawler.

The following are a few related sites you may not know about:

  • A listing of directories and engines from 195 countries and 39 territories around the world.

  • A powerful and popular metasearch engine (available in several languages)

  • Another metasearch site that claims to search 3.1 billion Web pages for you. Also has a button for you to view the last 10 queries it performed.

The Mousepad runs every two weeks. It's a service of Chebucto Community Net, a community-owned Internet provider. If you have a question about computing, e-mail If we use your question in a column, we'll send you a free mousepad.


The Mousepad Index


Originally published 31 August 2003


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