How to Use a Search Engine

If you are planning to make the most of the internet and world wide web then one of the first things you should become familiar with is how to get the most out of a search engine.

When looking for information or a service online there may be hundreds, thousands or even millions of websites out there on the web that are relevant (to a greater or lesser extent) to your query. However without using a search engine you would either have to be told about them specifically or hunt them down yourself by linking from one website to another, until you hopefully find a few that are relevant enough. Even then it can be difficult to gauge how trusted or reliable they are.

This is the job that search engines such as Google, Bing and Yahoo perform for you. There are billions if not trillions of web pages on the web and the number is always growing. Search engines are designed to quickly find you those few that are the most relevant to your query and give more credence to those that are established and therefore more trustworthy.

To understand how to get the best out of a search engine it a good idea to have a basic understanding of how they work. Search engines gather their information using software that sends out what are called ‘robots’ or ‘spiders’ which read the text on every page of every web page they can find, following links from one website to another. The data is then stored by the search engine company.

The exact methods (the algorithms) that search engines use to process all this data are complicated and kept very secret, due to the fierce competition between them, and they are constantly evolving to provide a more refined service. In essence though they will rank web pages for any given terms based upon whether the text content on those pages includes those (and related) words as well as the number and relevance of the other websites which link to the original web page. Factors such as the age of a website and how many people use it (i.e., traffic) are also taken into account to determine how established and reliable the site is.

Each search engine will present you with one obvious search box for you to type your search query, accompanied by a search button. To perform a basic search you simply need to enter the key words that are relevant to your query and click the search button. For example, if you are looking for a dog sitting service in the Salisbury area then type dog sitters salisbury. The results, the pages which the search engine thinks are relevant to your query will appear as a list of links on the page, each with a brief description. Clicking on the link will take you through to that page.

There is no need to present the words as a literal question like Where can I find dog sitters in Salisbury? because the search engine may return results that have the extra words in – you don’t necessarily want a page that asks the same question as you but one that might answer it after all. Some of this extra words are so common that they will not help your search to be more specific anyway. Punctuation is also ignored unless it is a special character which changes the nature of your search – see below.

In addition the words you are searching for do not necessarily have to appear next to each other or in the same sequence on a web page for that page to appear in the search results. However if you do only want to see the pages that contain an exact phrase then you can contain your words in quotation marks. For example, if you are trying to find the website for a business called Salisbury Dog Sitters then you can refine your search results more effectively by searching for “Salisbury Dog Sitters”. Moreover, if you want to web pages that don’t include particular words you can use a hyphen immediately in front of the word. Following the earlier example through, if you want to rule out search results that are appearing for pages that mention dog sitters in Salisbury, Maryland so that you can focus on results from Salisbury, Wiltshire you could search for dog sitters salisbury -maryland.

You can add more words to be more specific in your query such as dog sitters overnight salisbury but be careful not to over-complicate your search and use too many words. Whilst increasing the specificity of your search it can also rule out some results which may be relevant to your query but don’t necessarily contain every single word you’ve used, especially if some of your words weren’t essential for your query. The trick is to be only as specific as you need be and at the same time, target your words carefully. The words you do use need to be as descriptive, unambiguous and as relevant as possible.

Most search engines will offer the ability to perform advanced searches where you can usually specify other criteria for your search results which will help you to be more targeted in your searches. Useful options here can include a time period (to find web pages published within a certain time frame) the language of websites, a filter for more adult content and a geographical focus for your results (usually by country).

Moreover, most search engines also provide you with the ability to search for particular types of online content such as images, news, videos and shopping results using variations of their main search page. Look out for a link to these alternative search pages on the search engine’s main menu and you can ensure that you are only accessing the type of online content you want. The display of the results on these pages will often be more suited to your needs as well. An image search for example will display the results as images so that you don’t need to click on each link to see the image you’re looking for.

Search engines really are the principle gateway to world wide web and it is no coincidence that an estimated 80% of people accessing the web do so through a search engine. Learning how to get the most out of search engines is a key step in learning how to use the internet. Once you’re familiar with how they can be used you may find that the web is far more accessible than you had thought.

© Stuart Mitchell 2011
I’m a small business owner. If you are interested in finding out more about how to use search engines and many other aspects of the internet then visit How To Use The Internet.

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