Using Internet Search Engines

This is one of those times when I could get downright artistic. I could describe the poetry-in-motion of a fast-moving flow of information streaming onto your computer monitor. How it aligns perfectly, with boldly marked headers. How it resembles a high-resolution television screen; and how it pulsates on the colored background, its data like a sunset drawing the attention of its unsuspecting operator. But enough of that. This is supposed to be a serious technical article for jewelers who want to surf the World Wide Web and not get trapped in it. Just the facts, ma’am.

Here are the two most important facts: First, you’ll find more information on the Internet if you learn to use a search engine. And properly using search engines will improve your research skills.

Gentlemen, start your engines. The number of articles residing on the Internet exceeds the number of people residing on the planet, and that figure will double in a short time. Think of the World Wide Web or Internet as millions of books, each with numerous articles. Books sitting next to each other can contain totally unrelated information, and even the articles in a single book may be unrelated. Similarly, information on the Web is not “arranged” in any particular order. To retrieve an article, you must provide its precise location, or “address.” But how do you find the address?

A search engine is Internet software that searches its data banks and retrieves precise addresses and article names. One such search engine, Altavista, claims to have more than three-fourths of all Internet articles cataloged.

So, if you ask a search engine to retrieve articles about diamonds, for example, it will produce a list for you. It should amaze you that a typical search engine can display the results of your search within minutes.

Information-collecting robots. Understanding how a search engine searches will increase your ability to locate specific information on the Internet. Search engines send out what are called “robots” to search Web sites and categorize the articles they encounter. This occurs in one of two ways: It either catalogs submitted Web site addresses or follows links from other Web sites being cataloged—a truly Herculean task.

Amazingly, search engines may be used free of charge. That’s right, they are free. Of course, you will be made to endure some advertisements, similar to television commercials, whenever you use one, but it’s a small price to pay for access to such a vast amount of information.

Initiating a search. If you initiate a search by typing (entering) a word or phrase you want retrieved, the search engine will most likely display a list of articles containing the word or phrase and their Internet addresses. Many people believe that their success in retrieving information this way is sufficient. While this shot-in-the-dark approach may work, it is inefficient. You can do better.

If you enter more than one word—for example, black diamond—the search engine will search for articles that contain the word black and those that contain the word diamond. (Notice that I did not make the word diamond plural. Search engines will retrieve articles with singular or plural versions because both have the basic root black diamond within them.) Although it will list articles that have both words, the majority will be for one word or the other. This presents a problem because many potential articles will never be listed.

When I searched for black diamond using the search engine Altavista, it retrieved 86,845,778 articles with the word black, 238,170 articles with the word diamond, and 238,170 articles with the words black diamond. So, how do you get the search engine to show only those articles with the words “black diamond?”

Try entering the two words surrounded by quotation marks. The request for “black diamond” makes the search engine retrieve only references that have those two specific words, side by side, in that order.

Let’s give it a whirl. Get on the Internet and enter the address for a search engine. For demonstration purposes, we’ll use Altavista. On the address line of your browser software (for instance, Microsoft’s Internet Explorer or Netscape Navigator), type and press the enter key. Altavista will open within your browser and you’ll see a window where you can enter a request. Enter the word jewelry and initiate a search. A list will be displayed within moments. Imagine the speed of searching a database that catalogs more than 75% of all the articles existing on the Internet! Altavista will also display the total number of articles it has cataloged with any particular word. Notice that each listed entry is followed by a short portion of a sentence providing a hint as to the content of that article.

Now search again, but this time try entering Celtic jewelry. You will see that it has retrieved a listing for both words, together and separate. Now enter “Celtic jewelry” and initiate a new search.

Scanning the results. You will notice that there are numerous articles listed—the list may be many pages long. But if a single search engine’s data doesn’t give you what you’re looking for, switch to other search engines and use them. You can spend hours doing what Internet users call “surfing the Web.”

Ready to graduate from Search Engine 101? To do so, you will need to learn to perform advanced searches with “operators”—special words that a search engine understands.

Altavista’s operators are (always in upper case) AND, OR, NOT, and NEAR.

If you enter diamonds AND conflict into the search engine, it will display all articles that have both the word diamonds and the word conflict within them. It will not provide all the articles with just the word diamonds and all the articles with just the word conflict.

If you are searching for articles that contain either diamonds or Africa, use the operator OR. (You may be wondering why this operator is necessary if just entering the two words would give the same results. That’s true, but when OR is used in formula-based searches, which we’ll explain later, it serves to narrow down your search.)

Suppose you want to search for articles on diamonds but not be shown articles about diamond wholesalers. In this case, try entering diamonds NOT wholesale.

The last operator, NEAR, is handy when you want to find articles that have two words that occur within 10 words of each other. This operator is a midpoint between searches using two words without quotation marks and searches using two words with quotation marks.

The not-so-secret formula. Using multiple operators can be tricky. If you enter diamonds OR conflict AND Africa as your search choice, the search engine will most likely return all pages with both conflict and Africa, and then return all pages that match the word diamonds. That will be a serious amount of pages to check. (In fact, 7,035,610 pages were listed by Altavista when I did this very search.) Instead, use the same approach as algebra formulae. Altavista looks for combinations in parentheses first. So, (diamonds NEAR conflict) AND Africa will first list those pages that deal with the search diamonds NEAR conflict on the same page. Then it will further search for those pages that also have the word Africa in them.

Using a search engine is easy and should become a tool that will reward you many times over. For practice, enter your full name—enclosed in quotation marks, of course—into the various search engines, and see what is displayed. You may find that you are already the subject of an article on the Internet.

William D. Hoefer is an accredited member of the International Society of Appraisers (ISA) and is a nationally known appraiser, author, and lecturer. He was a professional computer programmer prior to owning and operating a retail jewelry store. Hoefer is now a full-time professional gemstone and jewelry appraiser and owner of Hoefer’s Gemological Services, San Jose, Calif.