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technofile  by al fasoldt
Columns and commentaries in a life-long dance with technology 
Simple gray rule


How to get search engines to do what you want 


Bit Player for Sept. 21, 1997

By Al Fasoldt

Copyright © 1997, The Syracuse Newspapers

I run an unusual Web site, and I'm proud of it.

That's because I've posted more than 300 of my articles on the Web. They're easy to find, easy to read, easy to save on your own hard drive, easy to print out and easy to return to any time you need help. I add more articles every week. I even have a book-in-progress on my site, with articles you haven't seen in print. I'll have 350 articles online by next week.

I know what you're saying—here goes Al, writing about himself again. Big deal!

But it is a big deal in one important way. Every day I get letters from folks who are looking for past articles I've written. In nearly every case, the article they're looking for is already a click away, on the Web. All they need to do is travel over to my Web site and browse through the menus.

My site has an unusual affiliation with Syracuse OnLine, the Web site of the Syracuse Newspapers. Everything on my own site, hosted by Dreamscape, a local Internet service provider, is duplicated on the Syracuse OnLine site. This is known as mirroring. When I make a change to my site, I make the same change to my mirror on Syracuse OnLine.

It's a wonderful way to make sure my articles and tips are readily available all the time. The Dreamscape site uses a bigger server than the one the newspaper uses, and the Internet-connection lines coming and going at Dreamscape are a lot beefier, but there are times when the newspaper's server is faster. Try both sites if you want to see which one seems snappier at various times.

Syracuse OnLine is much more than a mirror of my own site, of course. It's one of the top-rated newspaper Web sites in the country. If you've visited my own site without trying out Syracuse OnLine, you're missing out on a lot.

Enough bugle-blowing. I'm writing this because I discovered something interesting about you. If you're a typical Web surfer, the kind who writes to me now and then for help, you're probably making assumptions that you shouldn't make about finding things on the Web.

In other words, I think many of you are looking for stuff the wrong way.

It's not your fault. I blame the search engines—especially AltaVista, the fastest one. They're fast and efficient, and this can fool you into thinking that they're accurate as well. Look for "Gates'' and "wealth'' and you'll get an instant list that might total 30,000 pages.

But that list is full of references to Bill Gates, pearly gates, Heaven's Gate (the plural doesn't matter), backyard fences, transistor logic theory, and a lot more. And, of course, it's replete with references to the U.S. national debt, the latest reprints of Adam Smith's "The Wealth of Nations,'' snippets on the British royal family's financial holdings, and maybe the money that Bill Gates has.

Ah, but can't you narrow down the search using a plus sign?

Guess what! If you try to outsmart AltaVista or the other instant-search sites by typing a plus sign in front of "wealth''—supposedly telling it to show you only references that contain both "Gates'' and "wealth''—the search engines do a fuzzy-logic search and ignore your plus sign the first chance they get.

Don't get me wrong. I like AltaVista. I use it many times a day. (I use the "text-only'' version, which comes up a lot faster.) But I don't trust the plus-sign method at all. Instead, I use an almost hidden technique.

That method uses the semicolon. If I type "Bill;Gates,'' I will only get references to the chairman of Microsoft and any other persons named Bill Gates. That's a big help. I could take a guess and try "Bill;Gates';wealth'' in the hope that Web authors know how to use possessive pronouns, or I could try it both ways, one with an apostrophe and one without. (Don't forget that you can run many searches at the same time. Just call up two AltaVista pages in separate browser windows.)

This is simple advice. It's easy to follow. Try it out the next time you're searching for something and can't get the right results. You;might;be;surprised;at;what;you;find.


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