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Searching for Smarties


Susan Ives is a past president of Alamo PC.

I’ve got a lot of “dummies” books on my shelves and a few for “idiots” as well. Love the content, hate the titles. Search engines take that “dummies” tag seriously. You have a question. The search engines want you to find the answer. Really, they do. Their ultimate popularity is based on their success. Bad answers, no customers. No ad revenue. Pretty soon, no search engine, no BMWs in the company parking lot.. So how come every time I search for something I end up with Brittany Spears? How stupid do they think I am?

The algorithms used by most search engines are clunky. As Steve Wilson explains in the next article, a Web site’s placement in a search engine can be bought. Savvy Webmasters can take advantage of their quirks to nudge their Web sites higher in the rankings. This can be great for the Webmaster but irritating for the seeker of truth. 

My advice to Web searchers has always been to find a search engine or two that you like, learn to use it like a pro, and you will probably have better results that those who hop blindly from search engine to search engine. That advice still holds. But don’t get stuck in a rut. Some recent developments in search engine technology make it easier to get good results – but only if you’re a smartie.

I’ve become a Googlemaniac. Google, a fairly new search engine, avoids the trap of key words, self-serving page descriptions and crude word counts. Instead, they’ve taken advantage of the linkaholic nature of the Internet to develop a page ranking system that really works. The technical explanation of how Google works is available online. Here’s how they explain it themselves:

“PageRank relies on the uniquely democratic nature of the web by using its vast link structure as an indicator of an individual page's value. In essence, Google interprets a link from page A to page B as a vote, by page A, for page B. But, Google looks at more than the sheer volume of votes, or links a page receives; it also analyzes the page that casts the vote. Votes cast by pages that are themselves "important" weigh more heavily and help to make other pages "important." 

“Important, high-quality sites receive a higher PageRank, which Google remembers each time it conducts a search. Of course, important pages mean nothing to you if they don't match your query. So, Google combines PageRank with sophisticated text-matching techniques to find pages that are both important and relevant to your search. Google goes far beyond the number of times a term appears on a page and examines all aspects of the page's content (and the content of the pages linking to it) to determine if it's a good match for your query.”

The system works. I’m having close to a 95% success rate with Google and rarely have to look elsewhere.. If you haven’t tried it, do. 

PDF Search
I love using Adobe Acrobat. It lets me take documents I designed in any program – such as Adobe Pagemaker or Microsoft Publisher – and post them to the Web so that they can be printed exactly the way I designed them. The disadvantage to this method, at least until now, is that my Acrobat files (you can recognize them by their .pdf file extension) don’t get picked up by the search engines. I get around this limitation by providing hefty descriptions of them in a standard Web page, which do get indexed. 

With little fanfare, Adobe has opened a .pdf search engine. They claim to have indexed millions of heretofore hidden documents. If you’re serious about searching and hit a brick wall, this could be the place to look.

The term “bot” is derived from robot and indicates an automated assistant. A shopbot, then, is an automated program or Web site that helps you shop. When are they going to come up with the pay-off-my-credit-card-bot?

When I’m shopping on line, or just trolling for low prices, the products for sale get tangled up with product reviews. I never thought I would complain that the Internet isn’t commercial enough, but when you need to shop you don’t want to be distracted by all that altruistic and academic stuff. Shopbots typically link you to several merchants so that you can get an idea the rock-bottom price on your product. Most also screen their featured merchants so that you know you are buying from a reputable source. The most popular shopbot is My Simon, but in my test (I searched for SportBrain, a neat little gizmo I’m in the process of reviewing) Yahoo shopping returned the most results, featuring 15 merchants. Also check out GoTo shopping, which will also search more than 400 auction sites for you. Getting into debt has never been so easy.

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