Some people eat, sleep and chew gum, I do genealogy and write...

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Online searching secrets revealed

There are some definite techniques to searching online and to get results. To do this properly, you need to understand how the search engines work and what you can and cannot find online. First, there are three major search engines;, (from Microsoft), and Yahoo! Search. Beyond these three, there are dozens of other major search engines and perhaps hundreds of lesser used ones. There are also so-called metasearch engines that make searches using combinations of various other search engines. Many search engines use automated programs called web crawlers or automated programs that systematically search and catalog the Internet. If you would like to read about the history of online search engines go to the Wikipedia article, "Web search engine."

From time to time, I have done comparisons of the various search engines. It is important to understand what search engines can and cannot find on the Internet. Commonly, a computer user will use the Internet search engine that came with his or her computer. If you are using a Windows based system, this means that your "default" search engine is MSN Search or the updated program Bing. In my experience, many users are surprised to find out that they don't have to use the default search engine (i.e. Bing) that came with their computer.

There is also some confusion about the difference between a search engine and a browser. A browser is a program that runs on your computer to give you access to the Internet. The more common browsers are Firefox, Chrome, Internet Explorer (IE), Safari and Opera. The browser program connects to the Internet and allows you to run programs such as the search engines. You are not limited to any particular search engine just because you are using a specific browser. So, you can be running Internet Explorer and use the Google search engine (commonly referred to simply as Google). Those who buy Apple computers usually get a copy of Safari. Those who purchase Windows computers usually get a copy of Internet Explorer. There is a reason why both Firefox and Chrome are more popular than either of the programs (IE and Safari) that come with the computers. Although it is really a matter of personal preference, you might want to try out one or two of the browsers and even more of the search engines to get a good idea what you like.

The best way to test a search engine is to pick what you consider to be an obscure subject and do a search. I often use the name of one of my ancestors as a test. When you do such a search you might try searching for all of the names at once, i.e. Henry Martin Tanner or by putting the name in quotation marks, i.e. "Henry Martin Tanner." By convention, putting a series of words in quotes tells the search engine that you are looking for all of the words, in the order provided. If you go to the Wikipedia article I referenced above, you may find some considerable differences in the number of results and the relevance of the results across different search engines as I have noted in previous posts.

One of the issues that comes up with most of the search engines is the amount of advertising that comes with each search. If you don't mind ads, this factor won't make any difference to you, but if ads tend to bother you, then you will likely gravitate to a simple interface such as the "Classic Firefox" or Google Chrome's startup screeen. Across the board, different search engines display vastly different amounts of advertising and visual brick-a-brac.

Now, when you search, you need to focus on what it is you are trying to find. It may seem overly simplistic, but your begin your search by using the word you are looking for. As an exampe, if you were looking for "Mississippi vital records," which of the terms do you think you need to put first? Well, most search engines will look for websites with all three words and if the words are enclosed in quotation marks, then the search engine should look for the instance of all three words in the order specified. But think about your searches. Are you looking for Mississippi? Or are you looking for Vital Records. Perhaps you want to put the words "vital records" in quotation marks and use the state name, "Mississippi" as a modifier. By just putting three words in any of the search engines will likely guarantee that you will have thousands (perhaps millions) of results. If the number of results is huge, try adding more modifiers, such as birth, marriage, death etc. You should see the number start to go down and the relevance start to go up. But there is no use putting in all the words at the beginning because you may get what you are looking for on the first go around.

OK, stay tuned for part two of this series.

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