Search Engine Basics

By Kasey Chang

An Internet Search Engine is one of the most powerful tools available on the Internet. If you know how to use it properly, and learn how to interpret the results, it is actually very simple to use. The main problem is interpreting the results. 

I assume that you are already somewhat familiar with "web browsing" (going from site to site). You can connect to the Internet, and operate a web browser such as Internet Explorer or AOL's own web browser window to view some of your favorite sites (such as!) 

So what is a search engine? 

Basically, a search engine is like a huge card catalog that indexes everything on the Internet. Some sort of program runs automatically and checks for new content on the Internet, as well as update existing entry. However, all this is background stuff. You don't need to know how the engine works to drive a car, nor do you need to know how a search engine works to use one. 

Using a search engine 

So how do you use a search engine? You simply go to the search engine website of your choice, enter a few words in the search box, hit the "find" button, and it will return to you all the results it deems relevant to your search, sorted by relevancy. Clicking on any of the results will theoretically take you to a page that has something to do with your keywords.

You can find all sorts of information on the web nowadays. Now sure what a drug does for you? Put the drug name into a search engine, and immediately find out. Need to know which doctor accepts your insurance? Go to your insurance carrier's website and search for your doctor's name. 

Let us now try a search engine... One of the most used search engine on the web now is Google. You can either open a new browser window and type the address or just click on the links and a new window will open for you and take you directly to Google.  Coming back to SeniorMag is easy because all you will have to do is close the Google window and you will be right back here again.

For example, let us say you want to find local weather forecasts for your area. Just enter a search phrase like "local weather for San Francisco California". Don't type in the quotes... And click on "FIND". Look at the results you got... You should see links to various websites that have local weather for San Francisco!

Now have a little fun.  Replace San Francisco California with your own city and state, and search for weather again. 

You can enter any sort of words into the search engine, and the search engine will try to locate results for you. Some search engines will also suggest related words or categories, to help you find what you need. 

Search tips

Search engines usually do not care about capital or lowercase. So don't worry about SAN FRANCISCO or San Francisco or even san francisco. It doesn't matter to the search engine. 

The more words you specify, the more accurate your results would be. For example, searching for "san francisco giants" is better than just "giants". If you are searching for "San Francisco Giants", you don't want to read links about New York Giants (the football team), the giants of Greek mythology, or Andre the Giant (the wrestler). Being more specific gives you better search results. 

If you need to search for a phrase, like "Eternal Vigilance is the price of freedom", put the phrase in quotes and search. 

If you are not getting any results, start removing words from your list. You can get TOO specific, and it can confuse the search engines. 

Some search engines let you type in a full sentence. For example, you can enter a question like "What is the best deal for Hawaii?" or "What is the best treatment for arthritis?" However, most search engines do not need a full sentence. Simply enter as many keywords as you can. 

Google ( and Altavista ( probably the two best known search engines, though AskJeeves ( allows natural language queries (i.e. allows use of full sentences). Other smaller search engines are Lycos (, and WebCrawler ( 

Clicking on any of the above names in bold will take you to that search engine.  Try different ones for different results and to see which you like the most.

If you are NOT sure where to search or you don't know what words to try, a subject index can help. Yahoo is the best known subject index, grouped by all sorts of subjects, from location to topic. You can start at the top level, then drill down further and further into the categories, and you can see links in your specific category, as well as related categories. 

Yahoo ( is the best known subject index, though it calls itself a directory. Pick a category, then drill down to the specific category you need, and examine the links. 

Another subject index is Looksmart ( Click on the topic then drill down to more specific categories. Most search engines also offer some sort of subject index you can click through. 

There are other types of search engines as well. For example, THOMAS is the Library of Congress Search Engine (, which allows you to search for any laws, pending legistlations, and even committee meeting records from the US Congress (both House and Senate). 

If you need to look up businesses and such in your local area, you should use online "yellow pages" such as Yahoo's Yellow Pages ( or SmartPages ( There are many other types of search engines dealing with specific issues and topics as well. How about an online dictionary.  You can look up meanings and alternatives for almost any English word on Webster's

Search engines do not always return good results. You need to look at the results it gives you and check each one. If the link does not provide the information you need, backtrack to the search results page and check the next link, and so on. 

Sometimes, the link can take you to the right website, but the wrong page, and you'll need to search the
site yourself for the right page that has your answers. 

To summarize, search engine is a great tool on the web. Be more specific and you'll get better (more relevant) search results. 

Try a topic index if you're not sure what to search for. Try a specialized search engine if you need special information. Try the different search engines for your next research, or just enter what comes to your mind
and see where it takes you. 

Have fun, and I'll see you on the web.


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