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Digital Tools

Smarter Searching

Lee Gomes, 05.14.09, 09:00 AM EDT

Not just links: Search engines serve up answers too.

BURLINGAME, Calif. -- Got the time? Need to know the square of 145? Want to find out when that flight from the coast is arriving at the airport?

Nothing simpler, just ask your friendly neighborhood search engine. It's getting smarter by the day.

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All Web surfers know that the basic job of a search engine is to provide a list of links to Web sites that the search engines guess will contain the information being sought. Increasingly, though, search engines are going beyond pointing to sites; they are beginning to answer questions directly.

In Pictures: 10 Cool Search Engine Tips

A good example involves the definition of unfamiliar words. Rather than take you to one of the Web's many dictionary sites when you ask for the definition of a word, search engines now will simply tell you what the word means, at the very top of the page (as long as you type "define" and then the word as your search query). You will still see the expected links to the dictionary sites, should you wish to learn more.

These smarter, more useful search results are emerging because of a shift in strategy and technology by search companies such as Google ( GOOG - news - people ) and Yahoo! ( YHOO - news - people ). The thinking used to be that searches should always be untouched by human hands. And so search engine computers scanned the Web 24/7, indexing all the information they came across. When a search request came in, specialized software matched the request with the indexed page presumed to be the most appropriate.

But gradually, search engineers realized that in many cases all a searcher wants is a simple answer to a straightforward question. And so they revised their software to first identify as many of these types of questions as they could and, second, to consult special databases containing the answer.

It requires more work, since these databases have to be created and updated by hand, in contrast to the long lists of links generated automatically by software. But the result was a more helpful search, not to mention a closer relationship between search engine and customer, since the latter wouldn't need to click away from the search engine's page.

Search engines vary in the amounts of information they make directly available. It's good practice to check the "search tips" page that most search engines put up; you're likely to find a number of tricks your favorite search engine can perform that you didn't know about.

It's a repertoire that is expanding all the time. Google, for example, recently reworked its site so that it will give direct answers to certain economic questions. Type "unemployment rate," and it shows a chart with the national jobless rate. If you want to know about a specific county, just add that to the search term.

Your fingers will be happy too. One less click to make in finding your answer.

In Pictures: 10 Cool Search Engine Tips

See Also:

Life After Google

How To Get Found Online

Searching For An Audience

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