On The Net
Search Engine Prefixes and Shortcuts
By Greg R. Notess
Reference Librarian Montana
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
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
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
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.
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 92464 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.
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 oneGoogle. 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 availabledon't
limit yourself just to Google's.
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:32F 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.
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 shortcutsone 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 Teomanow 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 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.
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)
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.
R. Notess (firstname.lastname@example.org; www.notess.com)
is a reference librarian at Montana State University and founder of SearchEngineShowdown.com.
Comments? Email the editor at email@example.com.