by A. Scott Moreau and Mike O’Rear
While there’s no telling how many pieces of hay are in a haystack, with hundreds of millions of pages on the World Wide Web today, your “needle” is probably in there somewhere.
While there’s no telling how many pieces of hay are in a haystack, with hundreds of millions of pages on the World Wide Web today, your "needle" is probably in there somewhere. The magnets that instantly bypass all the useless chaff to deliver your needle are called Web search engines and directories.
A search engine works much like a computer concordance. It accepts a word or phrase from you, very quickly searches for your desired text in huge Web site indices, and returns a list of links to sites it thinks match your interests.
Directories, first cousins to search engines, involve some degree of human editing to review, catalog, and annotate sites. Thus, directories give consistently higher quality results while search engines give more comprehensive results. Many of the better tools today combine features of both.
Search engines consist of three parts. First, there is the spider, which roams through the Web, reading pages and following links to other pages, recording links to and information about each page it visits. The index is the second part: It stores a record of every page the spider finds. Search engine software is the third part: This is the program that accepts your query and sifts through the millions of pages in the index.
To assist you, we have developed a gateway site available at either www.gmi.org/research/search.htm or www.wheaton.edu/Missions/Moreau/Search.htm. Both sites contain the identical table consisting of links to leading search engines with a brief explanation of each. Simply place your pointer on the name and click. From time to time we edit the table, so when you access it, it may not look exactly like the table reproduced here. (You are free to copy and paste this table to your own Web site, editing it to fit your preferences.)
All major search engines accept simple one-word searches, and most accept very complex queries. There are three prominent approaches to specifying your search criteria: natural language, point and click, and query language.
Natural language. Ask Jeeves is an example of a "plain English" interface. Type in a question such as "Who are the Lambadi people? " and you will get links to (among other things) mission work among this people group in India. Nice, easy, but perhaps less powerful than others.
Point and click. HotBot has an elaborate and easy-to-use interactive interface. After entering the word or words you desire, select from the available lists to indicate whether the search should find pages which have all the specified words, any of the words, the words as an exact phrase, the words in the title of the Web page, etc. Further, you can specify that only pages that have been updated in the past week or month or year be found, or only those sites hosted in Asia, or only sites of nonprofit organizations (those with a domain of ".org"), or only those Web pages that include an image or a video, etc. Clicking on the "More Search Options" button gives you exactly what it implies.
Query language. AltaVista is the classic example of a powerful, flexible search engine that requires the user to learn a simple query language. Let’s look at a few examples, going from simple searches to the more complex.
Single words. Enter mission in the search box and click the Search button. The over 7 million "hits" which result, however, include many pages you may not care about. Entering the words evangelical mission reduces the number of hits to a much more relevant 400,000.
+/-. Immediately preceding a word or phrase with a + means that the word must appear in the Web page. So, entering +mission+evangelical gives you all Web pages that include both the word evangelical and the word mission somewhere within them (about 30,000). Similarly, including a "-" before a word instructs the search engine to return only those sites which do not include that word.
Phrases. To search for a specific phrase, put the words in quotes in the search box. For instance, searching for "evangelical mission" (including the quotes) gives you all Web pages that contain the phrase "evangelical mission"-fewer than 1,000 matches.
Wildcards. To include all forms of a word, use the asterisk (*). Searching for the word missio* will find all Web pages which have the word mission, missions, missionary, missionaries, missiology or missiological. So, if you’re looking for all Web sites that deal with evangelical missions, perhaps your best start would be to search for the word evangelical plus some form of the word mission. Searching for +evangelical +missio* results in about 40,000 hits.
Boolean logic. Most sites, usually in their "advanced" or "options" screen, allow the use of And/Or/Not/Near. Including the word AND in an advanced search will find only those Web pages that have both words in them.
Likewise, entering mission OR missions in the Boolean search will find all sites with either word in them. Entering mission NOT space returns all Web pages that include the word mission but not the word space. Using the word NEAR finds documents containing both specified words or phrases within 10 words of each other.
Meta Words. Most search engines allow the use of a handful of meta words which tell the search engine to look for specific text in specific features of Web pages. The syntax is metaword:keyword. For example, including in your search title:evangelical will find only those Web pages that contain the word "evangelical" in the title of the Web page. Other meta words, with examples of their use, are listed in our gateway site.
THE BEST SEARCH ENGINE
Deciding which search engine is best depends largely on your specific purpose, your approach, and your personal style.
For instance, if your purpose is to contact a particular person, use a search engine that specializes in finding people. If you are looking for an image of a mosque, use a search engine in which you can specify the meta word "image:mosque". If you are primarily interested in recent news or opinions on current events, use a search engine which specializes in searching news databases (such as Yahoo! or HotBot) or Usenet newsgroups (such as Deja News).
If you prefer beginning with a quick overview of what’s out there on your particular topic, use a metasearch engine like ProFusion or MetaCrawler, which search other search engines. If you like to drill down through a topical tree to find the information you want, use a directory like Yahoo! or Lycos. Likewise, if quality is more important to you than quantity, you may prefer using a directory instead of a pure search engine. If there is a special word or exact phrase you are seeking, one of the more comprehensive, pure search engines (such as AltaVista or HotBot) will give the best results. If you are concerned with what only Christian Web sites offer, use one of the Christian search engines (such as Christianity.Net or CrossSearch).
GETTING BETTER RESULTS
Generally, search engines have one of two glaring faults: Either they don’t find the site you’re looking for or they find far too many sites. So how does one get better quality results faster? Remember, search engines, like other computer software, act on-at best-what you tell them, not what you mean.
When you need to find information on the Web, take a few moments first to think carefully about specifically what it is you want. If an exact phrase is unique to your interest, use it (usually entering the words within quotes). As mentioned above, searching AltaVista for the exact phrase "evangelical mission" gives you a much more focused result than does searching for the two separate words evangelical mission (fewer than 1,000 hits versus more than 400,000 hits).
Learn and use meta words so you can search for specific words in the page title of a Web site, or find only those pages from a particular country, or only those sites that have an image file you want, etc.
Use a variety of search engines rather than limiting your search to just one. They each have different strengths; learn to take advantage of several.
Come back and try again later. The Web is growing rapidly, so if your query produces disappointing results, try again in a month or two and see what new sites have been added.
The World Wide Web, changing and expanding at an incredible rate, offers an overwhelming wealth of text, graphic, audio, and video resources. Fortunately, search engines and directories are constantly getting better and easier to use. Most of us simply cannot afford not to make the investment in learning to use good search tools. With a little practice, in no time at all you’ll develop the skills to quickly find your needles in the Internet haystack.
A. Scott Moreau is editor of EMQ and chair of Intercultural Studies at Wheaton College (Wheaton, Ill.). His email address is A.S.Moreau@wheaton.edu and the Wheaton Missions Department web address is www.wheaton.edu/intr
Mike O’Rear is the president of Global Mapping International (Colorado Springs, Colo.), which is dedicated to providing access to information for church and mission leaders, especially in the Majority World. He also serves as Lausanne senior associate for information technology. His email address is email@example.com and the GMI web address is www.gmi.org
Copyright © 1998 Evangelism and Missions Information Service (EMIS). All rights reserved. Not to be reproduced or copied in any form without written permission from EMIS.