Saturday, 8th August 2020
COVER FEATURE | Computers & The Internet Article

This Month's Magazine
Is anyone there?

Is anyone there?

Searching and being found on the Internet.

by Robin Strong

The Internet is estimated to hold over 500 billion pages at present. If you could read, just one page per minute for eight hours a day, it would take 57 years to read just about 10 million of them! There are so many pages out there, that “search engines” have been developed to help Internet users find the information they are looking for.

Most regular users have a favourite search engine, but there are actually several thousands search engines on the Internet. Yet, despite the availability of so many search engine, people still find it hard to locate the information which they need. Does this mean that search engines do not work? And, are they as useful as their makers claim? Let’s see how these engines work!

There are two types of sites that Internet users recognise as search engines :- “directories” and “content indexes”.

A directory is organised much like Yellow Pages, with a series of categories of web sites. Web site owners can register their sites under the relevant categories and users can select a category to find a list of sites.

Directories are generally organised hierarchically and “Yahoo” is one such directory. So, to find information on golf courses, you would select:

Recreation & Sports->Sports->Golf->Course and Club

Alternatively, you could just type “golf courses and clubs” into the search box. A content index examines the actual contents of web pages and uses this information to produce an index. The search engine compares the search criteria to the information it has gathered about sites and pages. If a page has a particular word in the title and mentions it several times in the text, it will be ranked higher than one that mentions it less often. Newer information is ranked higher than older information.

A number of sites enable users to enter questions in plain language in order to locate matching web sites. The most widely used is “Ask Jeeves”, advertised as the “World’s first Internet butler!” If you ask Jeeves a question such as “where can I find out about golf courses in Sotogrande?” it responds with options such as: - Where can I search for a golf course by name? - Where can I reserve a tee time online? - Which are the top golf courses in the world?

Some search engines will only match sites if they include all the words you enter. Others will match a site if it includes any of the words. This means that you would get different results when searching for “golf courses in Sotogrande” using different search engines.

If you are searching for something that is made up of multiple words, such as a phrase or a person´s name, use quotation marks around the words to prevent each word being searched separately. For example, adding quotes around “great barrier reef”, searches on one topic instead of three. You can generally use an asterisk (*) to allow multiple word forms when searching. For example “hos*” would find sites that match “hose”. “host”, “hosting”, Hostel”, etc.


To make it even more interesting, you can use the plus (+) or minus (-) signs to specify words that must, or must not, appear in the search results. For example, searching on “sting +police -bee ” would attempt to locate information about the rock star Sting, whereas “sting +bee -police” would be more likely to find information on treating bee stings.

Of course, most of the larger search engines include local versions to cater for different countries. Yahoo is the largest with specific sites for Denmark, France, Germany, Italy, Norway, Spain, Sweden and U.K. & Ireland, not to mention the rest of the world. In Spain, is the most visited site because it has all the functions of Yahoo, but is presented in the Spanish language.

So called “Meta Search Engines”, are not really search engines, they just provide a convenient interface to many other search engines with the result that you could search, perhaps 10 different sites, from one single page. The best example of this is Dogpile, which will search over a dozen different engines for each search entered.

Having come thus far, it may be worth mentioning some useful search engines as follows:


This is all very clever stuff and, in theory, it should work, however, although there are so many search engines available, most people do not find what they are looking for. The technical answer is because their searches either fail to find a match, or return far too many results. (Searching for “golf courses near me” using Alta Vista found 4,159,912 pages!). The technical advice is to try more than one search engine, some are better than others at finding companies, others at finding specific documents, others at answering questions.

Whatever you are looking for, is almost certainly on the Internet somewhere, it is just a question of finding it.

Now, from a practical point of view, I ask myself how many search engines can I register my web site with and under how many categories in order to be found? Which ones, in addition to the obvious ones? How much is that going to cost me? And, if newer information is ranked higher than older information, how often do I need to upgrade it to make sure it is on top of the list? Daily? Weekly? And how much does this service cost? If directories are organised hierarchically, what chance to be found do I stand?

From the point of view of the searchers, I very much doubt that they really enjoy sitting in front of a screen for hours on end, sifting through thousands of bits of information just to find something. They might do for a while, to start with, but the novelties soon wear off. And, if E-Commerce is to work as one would hope, they certainly will not have the time nor the patience to go through all that just to find me! .... Perhaps!

Let's be logical and think about it!

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