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Magazines > Online > May/June 2004
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Online Magazine
Vol. 28 No. 3 — May/June 2004
On The Net
Search Engine Prefixes and Shortcuts
By Greg R. Notess
Reference Librarian Montana State University

Shortcuts are the searcher's friend. Anything that saves time during a search helps expedite the entire online process. The quicker the route to the answer, the better. I have written about various types of shortcuts before. In May 1998, "Keyboard and Navigation Shortcuts" covered keystrokes and browser shortcuts. In July 2003, I explored a variety of JavaScript shortcuts in "Bookmarklets, Favelets, and Keymarks: Shortcuts Galore."

As an online searcher, I learned the value of shortcuts back in the previous millennium. In library school, one professor teaching online searching always emphasized looking for the most distinctive words to use in a keyword search. The goal was to find an answer with a minimum number of keystrokes. In the old days of 3,2,2,1 title searches on OCLC and similar truncated search keys, there was remarkable efficiency with very few characters. While those unusual search keys are gone, replaced with searches using whole words, the ability to use a minimum of words and keystrokes to obtain an answer remains an effective technique.

Web search engines and the availability of so much free information on the Web have brought online searching to far more people. Although few have had the benefit of studying online searching, most searchers like to get quickly to an answer with a minimum number of words entered. Ergo the frequency of simple one- or two-word search engine queries.

The search engines have made it much quicker to find certain kinds of information. Yet their producers recognize that more can still be done. In the past few years, search engines have been adding a variety of shortcuts direct from their search boxes. The shortcuts' purpose: Provide quick access to direct answers to popular queries, rather than just providing a list of results that may contain an answer.

Searchers generally use search engines to find a listing of Web pages that match words in the query. The idea, and often the reality, is that some of the listed pages do indeed have an answer. However, those are all at least another click away, and the searcher must guess which of the results will actually have the answer. With search engine prefixes and shortcuts, the search engine displays an answer, hopefully, the correct answer, right at the top of the search results page. Alternatively, searchers see a variety of specialized sources of information more clearly identified and only one more click away.

PRACTICAL EXAMPLES

Take, for example, someone looking for weather conditions and forecasts for a particular area. Certainly, many already know that sites like weather.com, wunderground.com, and others will provide that information. Suppose you have yet to discover such weather sites or have forgotten their addresses. In that case, turning to a search engine such as AltaVista and entering bozeman weather provides a perfect example of the search engine shortcut.

In addition to displaying search results that match the query, AltaVista will also display the current weather conditions in Bozeman, my hometown, at the top of the listings, along with a link to the full forecast. This link shows up above any ads. The idea is that the search engine wants to make it easy for searchers to get more directly to the information they seek. If the quick answer provided at the top is indeed what they are looking for, they are not likely to click on an ad anyway.

Sometimes, this approach can go awry. Searching for the first part of a phone number at AlltheWeb just to get a quick physical location for the number fails, because AlltheWeb assumes the searcher wants subtraction using its calculator shortcut. Instead of showing the search results for something like 987-654, AlltheWeb solves a math problem: 987-654 = 333. At least it gives an option to search the web for "987-654" which does give results that help determine the location of that area code and prefix.

Sometimes, as in the examples above, the search engine tries to recognize from the query the information need and give the shortcut results based on the query words (like "weather") or the query context (for mathematical calculations). At other times, it defines special prefixes to achieve certain functions. At AlltheWeb, just enter something like mp3:mozart to get results direct from the Audio database without choosing that tab first.

Yahoo!, in keeping with its punctuation-including name, adds the exclamation point as a special operator. Add it at the end of a query to jump directly to that specific result rather than just a link to it. For example, entering map medford nj! in the search box brings up a map of the Medford area along with links to driving directions and local information sources. Entering the same query without the ! will give a smaller map at the top with a link to more map information and regular search results.

UNVEILING THE HIDDEN

Beyond just providing quicker answers to searchers, the shortcuts serve another function as well. In a sense, they help to reveal some of the information that might be considered part of the hidden (invisible, deep, dark) Web that is not indexed by search engines. Consider the various calculator and conversion functions. While many Web sites offering such tools are certainly indexed by the search engines, the specific calculations are not. For example, a search such as 924•64 brings up many pages with those two numbers next to each other, but usually it is a list of numbers such as IP ranges or statistics as opposed to the calculation of that particular multiplication problem.

Similar to the addition of indexed PDF and other file formats, these quick answers provide more information to searchers. The answers were previously part of information sites that were hidden as separate pages that could not be indexed. Admittedly, many of these popular information answers could be found with a bit of strategic searching, at least by information professionals. But for the general public, these shortcut answers offer frequently requested information much more easily.

MARKETING ADVANTAGE

Of course, this is another reason that the search engines offer these shortcuts. By providing more and more easily accessible information, the search engines hope to build or increase user loyalty and to prevent users from ever needing to use any other search tool. If just one site could provide all answers, why go anywhere else?

I have intentionally written about all the search engines with shortcuts except for one—Google. Because Google has developed such a dominant position in the search engine marketplace, especially in the professional searching community, it is important to consider the tools available from other search engines. This was not a technique that Google pioneered, despite all the press coverage it has received for each shortcut it introduces. Indeed, many other search engines came up with some of these ideas first. Yet to some, Google is the only search engine they use.

The addition of various shortcuts, some of which are certainly well designed, help Google consolidate its hold on some searchers. AlltheWeb, AltaVista, Ask Jeeves, Google, and Yahoo! all have useful collections of shortcuts available—don't limit yourself just to Google's.

ALLTHEWEB SHORTCUTS

AlltheWeb introduced the calculator and conversion functions. Entering 2^8 at AlltheWeb jumps straight to the calculator and the answer of 256 for 2 to the 8th power. It handles standard mathematical calculations. The conversion calculator uses the convert: prefix. For example, convert:32•F gives the answer in Celsius.

With AlltheWeb's other databases, other prefixes can jump directly to results from those databases. Use pics: for the image database, or news:, ftp:, audio:, or web: immediately before the search terms to specify which database to use, no matter which one you are already in.

ALTAVISTA SHORTCUTS

Rather than prefixes, AltaVista offers its shortcut answers based on query words. These answers will display at the top of the search results. Most have a variety of options that trigger the results, and the descriptions on its help page list many of those options. For example, for the area code shortcut answer, a searcher can enter the numeric code, the words like area code dallas, or just area codes.

AltaVista's conversion calculator does not need the colon that AlltheWeb's uses. Just use convert followed by the measurement. It also has driving directions, downloads, exchange rates, stock quotes, greeting cards, images, local information resources, maps, movies, news, recipes, shopping, times zones, weather, phone numbers, and ZIP codes.

AltaVista has one of the largest collections of shortcuts—one of the reasons that AltaVista is worth another look if you haven't used it for awhile. The shortcut answers are displayed in a separate, clearly identifiable box above both regular search results and even the text ads (sponsored results).

ASK JEEVES FULL CIRCLE

In some ways, these search engine shortcuts derived from Ask Jeeves' earliest days when it worked hard to build a database of common questions and specific answers. Jeeves developed a reputation as a natural-language search engine, even though it was really just matching editorially selected answers from the Web to a set of common questions. Since then, it morphed several times, using various approaches for search results beyond the question-answer matches. After trying the metasearch approach, it bought Teoma—now the bulk of the results come from Teoma.

Yet through those changes, it continued to have question-answer matches. And this is exactly what the search engine shortcuts do. Entering a question like, what is the value of pi (or even just value of pi) brings up an answer to five decimal places along with links to more extensive answers. This is what Jeeves calls its Smart Search technology, but it offers several other shortcuts as well.

Typical of many of the other search engines with access to this quick information, Jeeves has shortcut answers for stock quotes, weather, conversions, pictures, and news. While some of these shortcuts are listed in the help file (see the URLs for search engine shortcut help files in the accompanying box), not all of the Smart Search answers are listed. Others available include country maps, driving directions, downloads, recipes, holidays, translation tools, and acronyms. While most advanced searchers might use Teoma rather than the Ask Jeeves site, both of which primarily use the Teoma database, the shortcuts are only available at Jeeves, not at Teoma.

GOOGLE SHORTCUTS

Google has offered a few shortcuts for several years, although they were known by other names. The quick click on the search term on the results page that went to a dictionary definition, the phone number results that would display at the top of the page, and stock information are the three older shortcuts. In the past year, the site has introduced several new ones.

Building on AlltheWeb's calculator idea, Google expanded it greatly. Beyond just basic mathematical calculations, it covers conversions as well. It includes more unusual units, especially scientific measurements and computer units such as hex. Using sqrt(-9) gives a square root. It can even perform calculations on mixed measurements.

Google's definition prefix (using either define or define:) differs from its dictionary look-up in that it finds definitions from its Web crawling rather than an official dictionary. Of mixed quality and sometimes dubious authenticity, it is still useful for getting definitions of new and unusual terms.

Google also has a variety of special number searches, including UPS, FedEx, and USPS package tracking; Vehicle ID (VIN) numbers; Universal Product Codes (UPC); area codes; patent numbers; FAA airplane registration numbers; and FCC equipment ID numbers. Each of these numeric searches does not give a direct answer, but does link to appropriate databases to look up that information.

YAHOO! SHORTCUTS

As mentioned above, Yahoo! gives two ways to use its shortcuts. Just use a specified prefix to get basic information at the top of the search results page, or add the exclamation point to the end of the query to go directly to more detailed answers with the other search engine results.

In addition to maps, Yahoo!'s other shortcut prefixes include define for dictionary definitions, weather for current conditions and forecasts, news for quick access to the Yahoo! news databases, yellow page listings when a ZIP code is included, and flight status, gates, and times by entering the airline name or code and the flight number (although not all airlines are included) [http://help.yahoo.com/help/us/ysearch/tips/tips-01.html].

EVALUATION ISSUES

While offering greater convenience by giving answers rather than an entire page, these various shortcuts often tend to bypass traditional methods of evaluating the quality of information on the Web. Sometimes it is difficult to tell where the data comes from since it is included directly on the page. If the Google or AlltheWeb calculator gives an incorrect answer, how can you tell?

While aiming to build increased brand loyalty and reliance, these shortcuts offer some very useful and convenient access to common information. Check back on the Help pages periodically to see what kind of new shortcuts have been added and how those can best be added to your collection of search tricks.

Shortcut and Prefix Listings:

AlltheWeb www.alltheweb.com/help/faqs/q_prefix
www.alltheweb.com/help/faqs/convert

AltaVista
www.altavista.com/help/search/shortcuts_overview

Ask Jeeves sp.ask.com/docs/about/tech_features.html

Google www.google.com/help/features.html
www.google.com/help/calculator.html

Yahoo! Shortcuts help.yahoo.com/help/us/ysearch/tips/tips-01.html

 


Greg NotessGreg R. Notess (greg@notess.com; www.notess.com) is a reference librarian at Montana State University and founder of SearchEngineShowdown.com

Comments? Email the editor at marydee@infotoday.com

 


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