Search Engine Shoot-Out

Top Search Tricks

You say you're no search wiz? Follow these simple steps to find the best answers without wading through pages of useless links.

1. Put quotation marks around your query: For example, type "air conditioning" rather than air conditioning. "This creates that query as one unit, so all the results you get back will have that set of words," says Microsoft Live Search senior program manager Jeff Osmer. Without the quotes, you'll end up with a lot of unrelated pages on air quality, hair conditioner, and the like.

2. Use the minus (-) sign: This tells the engine, "I don't want this word." If you enter Shakespeare -William, for instance, you're instructing it to display anything that matches "Shakespeare" and doesn't include "William."

3. Get definitions: Use the modifier 'define' as a handy way to make a search engine into a dictionary. Just type define word in the query window for a quick definition. (Google users must add a colon, as in define: word.)

4. Ask in plain English: Today's search engines are constantly being fine-tuned to respond to real-world queries. You'd be amazed at what they can do with even the most cryptic query. "[For] anything you throw into the search box, we'll try to find an answer," says Google software engineer Matt Cutts. For instance, if you enter "yellow polka dot bikini" 45 rpm excellent condition, that lets the engine know you're looking for a copy of Brian Hyland's 1960 novelty record without scratches.

And here's a trick that works with all four major search engines: Plug in a telephone area code as your query. Suppose that you see a number on your phone's caller ID and wonder where the caller is located. Enter the number's area code in the search window to view the city or cities for that number. Caveat: If the caller is using a VoIP line, he or she may not necessarily be located in the area code's geographical region.

5. See quick weather previews: If you're flying to, say, San Francisco, enter San Francisco weather in the search box for a fast forecast.

Skip the Advanced Classes

Advanced search?
Illustration: Steven Lyons
Every search site offers sophisticated query tools that the vast majority of its users never touch. If you don't know a Boolean from a hooligan, fear not. "Most people are just typing in keywords these days, so the search engines had to be optimized for that sort of query," says Tim Mayer, Yahoo Search senior director of product management. People who use advanced search tend to be "librarians or information professionals" who bookmark the feature and use it regularly. Stick with the tips listed on this page, and you'll soon see that your search skills have improved noticeably.

Jeff Bertolucci is a freelance writer living in Southern California.
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