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February 22, 1999

Finally, an effort is under way to make Net searches easier

Windows users are forever scouring Internet search engines to find fixes for various problems. The good news is there's a lot of information out there. But search engines often return far too many results -- and different search engines refine their searches in different ways.

Now someone is doing more than just complaining about this. Danny Sullivan, the editor of Search Engine Watch, an Internet analysis service, has announced the Search Engine Standards Project. Sullivan's goal is to bring together major search engine executives so that users need to learn only one set of search techniques, which will work across all engines. For details, see

By major search engines, Sullivan means AltaVista, AOL NetFind, Excite, HotBot, Infoseek/Go, Google, GoTo, LookSmart, Lycos, MSN Search, Netscape Search, Northern Light, Snap, WebCrawler, and Yahoo. (If you're not familiar with any of these engines, try typing the name into the address line of the current version of any browser, which will fill in the and other Internet address junk.)

All these engines exist because no single engine can fill all users' needs. Personally, I use MetaCrawler for general searches across engines, AltaVista to search for Web citations of obscure terms, Yahoo to find sites that focus on a single subject, and Northern Light to scan commercial text bases.

Choosing which engine to use for a particular task is daunting even for experienced data miners. So Sullivan's project to standardize search procedures may help users who must jump from engine to engine to find the information they need.

It has been said that the perfect job announcement would result in only one application, from the perfect applicant. That's the result I want from search engines: the perfect Web page that has exactly what I want (with links to other sources).

Most queries, however, return thousands of hits, and narrowing your search becomes a painful but essential step. Fortunately, there are many little-known ways to make fine-tuning easy. And this another way that Sullivan's standards project may be able to help.

One fast way to narrow your focus is to search only the titles of Web sites. This eliminates many sites that have mere passing references to your subject.

AltaVista, HotBot, Infoseek, GoTo, MSN, Snap, and Northern Light allow you to do this with the prefix title: (as in title: windows bugs). But Yahoo uses the prefix t: and Lycos makes you go to an advanced search page.

If this still delivers too many hits, you can narrow your search to a single Web site that has many relevant pages. Doing this is even less standardized, however. AltaVista uses the suffix host: (as in host: windows bugs). InfoSeek uses site:, and domain: is used by HotBot, GoTo, MSN, and Snap. Other engines don't yet support this refinement (although some do on advanced search pages).

Even the most basic searches, such as "windows bugs," aren't safe either. Most engines treat this entry as windows OR bugs, but HotBot, Lycos, MSN, and Northern Light treat such entries as though you typed windows AND bugs. AltaVista and Google default to "windows bugs" (as a phrase).

A complete description of all these rules is at I've made a handy chart that you can download and unzip. I hope, however, that we soon won't need this.

Brian Livingston's latest book is Windows 98 Secrets (IDG Books). Send tips to He regrets that he cannot answer individual questions.

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