Alta Vista is a very thorough search engine that uses fairly advanced search technology. You can either enter a few keywords (you can even choose the language, so you don’t get matches in other languages), or you can ask it a simple question in plain English. For example, If I type Where can I find Yorkshire Canaries? it finds 3,323,520 Web pages. The results are displayed on pages 1 to 20 (it doesn’t display them all). Here is a break down of what was returned:
word count: Canaries: 17905; Yorkshire: 314111; Where: 4742047; find: 26016715; can: 95657036 Ignored: I: 245570750.
As you can see, there are a lot of irrelevant matches to comb through. The most relevant will be displayed in the first few pages. Though this isn’t very efficient, you are guaranteed to find a lot about what you searched for if you have the patience to go through the first few pages of links. It would be far better to search for the phrase “Yorkshire Canaries” using quotes in this case. Another thing you can use on altavista are + and – signs that include and exclude words. For example if you type:
Yorkshire +Canary -Islands
(pay attention to the spacing) and click Search, you won’t find travel links to the Canary Islands.
That will still return a lot of irrelevant matches (though the most relevant are listed first). To refine this, go back to the AltaVista Main Page and click the link in the top right corner of the yellow search area on the page,”Advanced Text Search”. Here, you are presented with the opportunity use what are called Boolean Operators.
What are Boolean Operators? Quite simply, they employ a type of logic (Boolean Logic, a form of algebra actually, named after a 19th Century mathematician George Bool) that uses the expressions AND, OR, XOR and NOT. Let me first explain what these mean and then I’ll show how they apply to a Web search.
AND – If the expression is x AND y, the output is true if both x and y are true.
OR – For x OR y, the output is true if either x is true or y is true.
XOR – For x XOR y, the output is true only if x and y have different values.
NOT – For x NOT y, the output is true if x is false; the output is false if x is true.
This type of logic is used in programs and in chips/circuitry as it is especially suited to binary 0’s and 1’s. Now, to apply it to our advanced AltaVista search, With AltaVista, using the advanced search you first have to define a few ranking keywords in the search field, and then specify the Boolean expression you want to use. This may not apply to other advanced search functions using other search engines, you might just use the Boolean expression in the search field. Sticking with our Yorkshire Canary example, I entered the following ranking words into the search field:
and into the Boolean Expression field:
Yorkshire AND Canary We would get matches containing both of those words together. This is almost what we want.
Yorkshire OR Canary We would get matches containing either of those words. This is not what we want.
Yorkshire AND NOT Canary Definitely not what we want, we’d get info on Yorkshire England. Note that NOT can’t be used on it’s own, it needs to be used with AND.
Yorkshire NEAR Canary We would get matches with the works Yorkshire and Canary near each other, within 10 words. This isn’t one of the Boolean expressions defined above, but it still represents a true/false situation and is thus still considered part of a Boolean search.
None of these searches were very productive, using AND most of the matches were travel related, even though they contained both words; links to travel sites with packages for England and Canary Islands. Fortunately, we can combine Boolean operators using brackets, just like in Algebra class for basic arithmetic. For our example, the best search would be to enter the ranking keywords Yorkshire Canary and then in the Boolean Expression field:
(Yorkshire AND Canary) AND NOT Islands
This gives us a great many relevant matches, with no travel related links. Of course, the most relevant matches are on the first few pages, but using this expression I found relevant matches as far down as page 10 of 20! Note, however, that it is not perfect. Not every hit will be relevant to your search, however using this technique we have drastically reduced the amount of crap to wade though.
Another Feature of the Advanced AltaVista Search, are date fields. You can specify a range of dates for the pages that are to be displayed. The dates that it uses are the dates that the pages were last modified. This feature could be useful if you are searching only for the most current information.
Meta Search Engines
Now I’ll introduce you to a very powerful search tool, known as Meta Search Engines, of which there are several. What these search engines do, is search other search engines for you, and return a set number of matches from each. It’s a great way to get a cross-sectional search of a very large portion of the World Wide Web. Another advantage of this is, you are making use of different search algorithms from the various search engines that are employed. Every search engine searches and compiles it’s links differently, and these Meta Search engines will filter out the best matches for you from each.
MetaCrawler is a very good Meta Search Engine, it searches not one, not two, not even ten, but eleven search engines! It searches AltaVista, Infoseek, WebCrawler, Thunderstone, About, DirectHit, Excite, Lycos, Yahoo, LookSmart and GoTo, translating your search query into the appropriate syntax of each. It listens for responses from all of them simultaneously, and when all of them have returned the matches, or the process times out, it collates them all, ranks them for relevance, eliminates the duplicates and displays them for you (telling you which search engine(s) found them).
It is also very easy to use. You can customize it with options, like how many matches are to be returned from each source, click Power Search and choose the search engines and areas of the World to search, or simply go with the defaults. (which are sufficient for most searches). Simply entering Yorkshire Canary into the search field and clicking the search button found quite a few relevant links.
Web Ferret – The Ultimate Web Search Tool
This is not a search engine, but a very handy utility that you can download for free. How it works is, using multiple sockets, it simultaneously searches a list of search engines for you and displays 500 matches, with the most relevant first. In fact, you can set the option for Web Ferret to return 500 matches from each search engine (but that is overkill in my opinion). It displays them all in a single list, that you can scroll through very quickly and if you hover your mouse over a match, it displays a description of the link. I usually hit the stop button before it has returned 100 matches, because by hovering my mouse over them, I can see that I’ve already found what I’m looking for. To go to one of the matches, all you have to do is double click them in the list and it opens your default Web browser (if it’s not already open, otherwise it brings it into the foreground and goes to the URL. Additionally, if you right click on a link in the list you can conveniently copy it to clipboard and paste the title and URL. Know what? Since I’ve downloaded Web Ferret, I don’t even use search engines anymore. I always find what I’m looking for approximately within the first hundred matches that Web Ferret returns.
If you get the freeware version of Web Ferret, it searches the following search engines: AltaVista, AOL Netfind, EuroSeek, Excite, GoTo, InfoSeek, LookSmart, Lycos, and Yahoo. There is also a professional version, that you have to pay for. It uses more search engines and doesn’t display advertising banners within the program. The freeware version is plenty good enough, and the ads aren’t too intrusive.
Download the Web Ferret here: http://www.ferretsoft.com