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July 2001
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How to Improve Your Searching Skills

By Anthony Paonita

How to Improve Your Searching Skills IF YOU HAD TO stick a label on it, we're probably in the "mature" phase of World Wide Web use. Most people have by now settled on the sites they frequent. They have regular shopping habits, and have certain ways of getting to the information they need.

But if our browsing habits are in a rut, our need for information changes constantly. You never know what the next case will bring, from tracking down product information to doing online research about an untested drug that led to a client's adverse reaction.

Luckily, it's all out there. And, at least at the initial stages of your research, you can do most of it using free, online search engines and databases. Later, if these don't meet your needs, you can investigate whether to pay more.

Where To Go?

Everyone has a favorite search engine, and usually, it's among the first ones you used. Habits, even modern e-habits, die hard. But I have one word for you, and it isn't Yahoo! It's Google, which is far and away the best of the breed.

Why Google? It uses a sophisticated search engine, of later provenance than the others, which not only hunts down the key words you enter, but also analyzes how many other searchers have visited the site. It sounds dicey, but think about it: If others find a site useful and visit it frequently, there's a greater chance that you will, too. More often than not, the sites that pop up on the first "search results" page will contain the information you're looking for.

Google also lets you cut through the Tower of Babel that is the Web. Believe it or not, everyone does not write in English, and there is useful information out there in such languages as French, German, Italian and Scandinavian languages. Google will helpfully offer to translate them all -- just follow the link next to the search result item's title.

Naturally, the translation won't be perfect. Just for fun, I went to some Italian sites (Italian is my second language) and giggled at the often too-literal translations. But for those of you who evaded your college's language requirements, being able to get the sense of what normally would be gibberish comes as a godsend.

Google does Usenet newsgroups, too, from your browser. The company recently bought the service formerly known as Dejanews, then simply "deja.com," taking its supertool, a search engine for the wild and wooly world of newsgroups. Virtually nothing in a newsgroup should be taken as truth, but postings are useful for the lawyer checking out the word on the street on a given topic. Just point your browser to groups.google.com.

One caveat. Like Microsoft's Word, Google can be overly and annoyingly "helpful" with its defaults. If you've set Google as your home page, sometimes when you're trying to type a Web address up top, you're abruptly pulled to the search form line. Hey, I'll go there when I want to, OK?

Google's not the only game in town. Yahoo is pretty exhaustive and fairly accurate. Altavista, which once managed to find the most irrelevant pages to my searches, has simplified its interface and seems to come up with more relevant searches. And some legal technologists are just agaggle about KnowledgeBox from DolphinSearch.

Search Smart

O.K. Down to nuts and bolts: There's the smart way, and the unfocused way to conduct searches. Smart is better.

Most search engines look for words and phrases. You'll get the best results if you know what you're looking for. This might be obvious, but you'd be surprised how using just the right search phrase can help you attain search nirvana.

Some simple ground rules. Search engines generally don't care about capitalization and punctuation. They're also programmed to ignore such common words as articles as prepositions, and common misspellings.

If you simply string words together, say "Bush Kyoto global warming," the search engine assumes that you want to find pages that contain all the words, no matter the order or their relationship to one another. Chances are, simply because of the proper nouns, you're bound to find something about the current controversy over treaties very easily. But you might get a zillion responses with everything from tourism to beer gardens to how to plant hydrangeas in sunny spots.

Instead, narrow your parameters. Put in words that are likely to be very specific to your exact search. For example, the position of one of the countries involved in treaty discussions. To do so, use quotation marks around a phrase you'd suspect such a page to contain, such as "environmental damage." Search sites also let you exclude words with a minus (-) sign and use a plus (+) sign instead of the word "and."

For example, Law Technology News' editor happens to share her name with a place in Southern California known for wonderful sunsets and a long pier, Santa Monica Bay.

Going to Google, I entered Monica's name, and in less than half a second, Google returned 221,000 entries. This was not helpful.

So I tried the minus sign technique. Be sure to enter the sign right before the word you wish to exclude, i.e., with no space. Here, the undesirable word was "Santa," so my search read "Monica Bay -Santa." I got back more than 57,000 results, including multiple sites that featured both "Monica" and "Bay" but not together.

Finally, I grouped "Monica Bay" together in quotes, and excluded "Santa." Google returned 116 results, most of which had to do with Monica. I have no idea how a Norwegian Web site with smiling people at a lake snuck in there, but, well, the Internet remains a serendipitous place.

Using the same approaches, Altavista was all over the place, returning 5.5 million sites for Monica's name, only slightly less excluding "Santa" and a paltry, and often erroneous 54 with the most restrictive search. Lycos, on the other hand, mostly tracked Google's result for restrictive searches, giving more filler for the first two.

But then again, the best way to find Monica's stuff is to point your browser at www.lawtechnews.com. Happy searching!

Anthony Paonita is a senior editor of The American Lawyer and a contributing editor to Law Technology News.

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