Tricks for making hay on the Web

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 15 January, 1998, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 15 January, 1998, 12:00am

For many people, searching the Internet has become a nightmare, thanks to the massive number of Web pages cluttering cyberspace. Finding the information you need is worse than looking for a needle in a haystack - it's more like looking for a needle in an entire corn field! Alta Vista, one of the most powerful Web search engines available, frequently returns more than 30,000 Web pages as the result of a search - sometimes even hundreds of thousands.

Luckily, Alta Vista's 'simple search' page has many hidden tricks that can be used to target your research more accurately and get just the information you need.

One of the simplest and most effective is to use the '+' and '-' operators in your searches. Prefixing any search word with '+' tells Alta Vista that the word MUST appear on a Web page to be considered a valid hit. Prefixing a word with '-' tells Alta Vista to exclude pages with that word.

For example, '+computing +history' will give you a list of all Web pages that contain both words. If you omitted the '+' from each word, Alta Vista would return all pages that contained either word - that's about 10,232,597 pages! Using the '+' operators cuts the number of results down to just 364,213 pages.

To refine your search further, you could type '+computing +history -apple -microsoft', which would remove any Web pages that mentioned Apple or Microsoft. In this example, the results list drops to 273,604.

To further narrow the search, put phrases or words that you think should remain together in quotes. Following from the previous example, writing the search as ' +'computer history' -apple -microsoft' would narrow the search down to just 995 pages.

At that point, it is possible to look at most of the documents matching the search criteria without it taking you several hours.

Another useful search tactic is to use the 'host' keyword, which searches for information only at a particular Web site. For example, '+'computing history'' tells Alta Vista to only find articles published on the site. In this case our search drops to just seven hits! To restrict the search to document titles, the word 'title' can be added to the search line. This is ideal if you are looking for pages on a specific topic. For example, 'title: 'computing history' ' only shows pages that contain the phrase 'computer history' in their title. This simple search returned just 55 pages. And they were all spot on the topic.

To hunt down graphics, there are tricks specific to image files that you can try. If you have some idea of the filename, you can try the image keyword.

Try something like this: 'image:eniac.gif', which will find any GIF graphics files called eniac. Another example is '+image: com put*', which will find any images starting with the letters 'comput' that are held on the Web site.

If you are searching for pages that link to your own Web site (or a competitor's site), use the 'link' keyword, which finds pages that contain a link to another page. For example, '' finds all pages linked to the South China Morning Post Web site.

The 'url' keyword finds pages with specific characters in the Web page address. Therefore, to find any Web pages addresses that contain the word 'computing', type 'url:computing'.

By combining these simple search tricks, your research efficiency will go way up.

While this is no guarantee to finding that elusive needle, at least you'll only be searching a bale of hay, not the entire field.