Sunday, December 05, 2004


Class. Class! Please come to order, we have a lot of material to cover today, and not a lot of time (or space).

Today we are going to discuss the difference between search engines – such as Google, and directories such as ODP. Knowing how or when to use each is essential if you use your computer for anything more than playing an occasional game.

[Now, since this is January, and you may be a new reader with a new computer, let me give you a bit of background. I’m the resident grouch around here. There is very little that I like, and you’ll rarely wonder where I stand – or sit – on a given issue. With that in mind, buckle your sear belt and hang on for the ride.]

Search engines are a good place for finding things when you don’t have too much of a clue. They are usually keyword based, and you can get amazing results with just a single word search. The key word here (pardon the pun) is amazing. It is amazing how much information a keyword or group of keywords will pull up. The problem is, that while you may get 1,500 hits for the keyword you are seeking, there may only be a few relevant results.

This is why webmasters go nuts trying to do keyword optimization so that for given keywords their site will pop up on the first or second page of search results. If a website pops up on page 17 of the results, odds are pretty strong that no human will ever get that far.

Still, search engines are exceptionally powerful tools. Google has recently made a program available that extends its search engine technology to the desktop, so that you can search for files, or e-mails on your system the same way that you search for sites on the web.

So, if you are looking for a hotel or motel in Portland, you might search for the terms “hotel” and “Portland” and if you are smart, you’ll add “Oregon” to the mix. I just did it, and got 1.95 million results (hotels portland oregon) in slightly more than a fourth of a second.

Well, it has been a few years since I was last in the land of the liquid sunshine, but I pretty well know as a fact that there are not 1.95 million lodging establishments in Portland. If I tell Google only to return English language sites updated within the past 12 months, I am down to a mere 1.79 million sites. If I tell it not to return the words “travel” “agent” or “agency” (hotels portland oregon -travel -agent –agency) I’m down to 601,000 pages.

I could keep adding and subtracting words and would probably get it down to an even smaller number of results, but I doubt I could ever get it down to a manageable set of results. Still, nothing beats a search engine if you want fast results, and you are wise enough to realize that if you don’t find what you are looking for in the first two or three pages or results, you need to try a different set of keywords.

Directories, on the other hand, are anything but fast. They require that you parse through different categories and subcategories until you find a reasonably short listing of hopefully relevant sites.

So, if you wanted that list of hotels and motels in Portland, and you wanted to search the Open Directory Project (where I am a volunteer editor) you would start like this:











As you can see, you work your way down through the categories until you find the correct subcategory. Once you hit the bottom one on the lists, you’d have a list of 17 properties. The list is certainly not complete, but it does not require that you look through 600,000 listings, either.

So what you are doing is trading off speed and wildly erratic results for a slower, more focused approach that may be incomplete. What is a person to do?

Simply grab the best of both worlds. Within the Google search is the capability to search within given domains. So you can tell the search engine (Google) to search the directory ( for the results you need.

Doing this, using the same terms as my previous Google search, I got 24 results, but they were not 24 websites! They were 24 ODP categories that met the keyword criteria, so some browsing was still required, but it was less daunting that going through dozens of pages of pure search engine results.

But, you might ask, don’t directories have their own search engines? Most do, some do not, but in the case of the ODP, the search engine is really not terribly good and many editors (myself includes) use domain-restricted goggle searches when looking for something.

Directories also pose another challenge. It can be very frustrating trying to find something if you do not have a good understanding of exactly how the directory is organized, or the rules for site placement. For example, if you are trying to find something within Regional, do you look in the locality, the county, the metro area or the region? The answer may differ depending upon what you are looking for. Using the domain restricted search makes the issue somewhat moot.

So, where can you find Computer Bits? The magazine is located in Regional/North_America/United_States/Oregon/Localities/P/Portland/News_and_Media, but there were actually 58 results, some of which were individual articles. Try it yourself by going to Google and searching for: “computer bits magazine” without the quote marks.

2005 Update: ComputerBits is not longer in operation.

No comments: