Exactly how much information is there on the Internet? No one really knows; recent guesstimates put it at well over one and a half billion pages, and counting (the number has almost doubled since last year!). Unfortunately there is no central contents listing, register or index of Internet sites, in short searching the web can be a time-consuming and frustrating business; new users are frequently amazed that a simple word or name search can yield tens of thousands of ‘hits’.


There is basically two ways to find a web site if you don’t know the address: the suck-it-and-see approach, and Search Engines. Method one often works when you know the name of the company or organisation you are trying to locate. If it’s a multinational business or an American concern simply type its name into your web browser’s address field: i.e. If they’re UK based substitute for .com, for non-profit making organisations – charities etc. -- and with a bit of luck you’ll find yourself on the company’s home page, or a link to it.


However, when it comes to finding detailed or more specific information you need to use a search engine, these are Internet site that contains its own highly organised index of web pages. There are scores of them and the vast majority are free to use as they’re subsidised by advertising. Search engines work in a variety of ways, some are very specialist, devoted to a single topic or subject area, however, the one’s we’re interested in are for general purpose searches, and this week we’re looking at ways to make your quest for information faster and more effective.


Search engines (see Contacts) fall into two fairly distinct categories, those that maintain their own index or database, and so-called ‘meta’ search engines that compile results from several different search engines. The former tend to be faster for straightforward searches; Meta sites can save time when you’re looking for more obscure information.


Web site indexes are generated in a variety of ways. Web site owners and operators submit their details manually and many search engines use ingenious programs called ‘spiders’. They operate automatically, constantly trawling the Internet, following links on web sites, collecting pages and data and sending them back to the host search engine where they’re collated.


The home pages of most popular search engines have a search field where you can enter keywords, or a simple question like ‘where can I find left-handed corkscrews’, this will usually start a basic ‘All or Any Word’ search and you shouldn’t be surprised if it returns a mind-boggling number of hits. However, most search engines try to be helpful and rank the results in order of relevance, they’re usually intelligent enough to correct or compensate for common spelling mistakes and exclude common words in a sentence and phrases.


There’s a lot you can do whittle out the dead wood, improve the precision of the results and speed up your search. Start with your choice of search engine. If the information you are seeking is concerned with this country, for example, you’re looking for holiday cottages in Devon, you are better off using a UK based search engine, or the UK version of one of the big international engines. Unless you actually want results from foreign web sites set the language option – if shown -- to English. Try an additional search within a set of results by adding an extra keyword or two. For example, suppose ‘holiday cottages in Devon’ returned 6,900 results, you could probably reduce that to a few hundred highly relevant hits by putting ‘Brixham’ in front of Devon.


Most search engines recognise an exact phrase when it’s enclosed by quotation marks. Try it for yourself. Type in “Making my entrance again with my usual flair” into a search field and you will be presented with a selection of sites for Sinatra song lyrics, including of course Send in the Clowns. Increasing the number of results per page can speed things up; some search engines will let you display 100 or more hits, though this option may not be shown on the home page. It’s most likely to be found on the ‘Advanced Search’ or ‘Power Search’ page, which is really worth getting to know.


Advanced searches usually let you set precise rules to greatly reduce the number of hits. The most useful facility is to be able to include and exclude specific words. In our holiday cottage example you could narrow the field still further by including the words like ‘sea views’, ‘3 bedrooms’, or ‘children welcome’. Some search engines provide extra fields for you to type in specific words, other use a simple shorthand, like putting a ‘-‘ minus sign in front of a word to exclude it or a ‘+’ plus sign to include it.


The advanced options on some search engines include a ‘Boolean’ search.  This is a fairly exotic technique that uses logical commands or ‘operators’ to create a set of rules. The operators are ‘AND’, ‘OR’ and ‘NOT’, it takes a good grounding in logic and it helps to be a computer programmer to make proper use of it, so we’ll save a more detailed explanation for another day…


Finally, don’t rely on just one search engine, bookmark at least three of four of them and get to know their individual strengths and weaknesses.


Next week – Creating invitations





A branch of algebra named after nineteenth century British mathematician George Boole



Search results, usually a brief summary of a web site’s contents, the site address, a relevance rating and an underlined link to click on, to take you to the site



The space in a search engine where you type in keywords, a short phrase or question





Sooner or later you may want to add extra disc CD-R, DVD or Zip drives to your Windows 95/98 PC, in addition to the normal compliment of floppy, hard-disc and CD-ROM drives. One or two extra drives doesn’t usually cause any problems, Windows automatically recognises new drives and allocates drive letters, but occasionally you may find there’s a limit when you reach drive letter G:\ or H;\. Normally you can reassign drive letters in Windows Device Manager but when you exceed the limit this option is disabled. The solution is to modify a command that appears in the system file Config.sys. Open Config.sys with Windows Notepad (Start > Programs > Accessories), select ‘All Files and look for it in the root directory of the C:\ drive. The offending line will usually say something like ‘LastDrive=G’, simply change the ‘G’ to a higher letter in the alphabet and Save Config.sys.

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