A Beginnerís Guide to Search Engines and Directories

Guy Alvareza

Reprinted with permission from the June 1997 issue of Marketing for Lawyers.
© 1998 The New York Law Publishing Company. All rights reserved.


FINDING information or a particular Web site on the Internet can be a daunting task. This is so even with a proliferation of sites billing themselves as "guides to the Internet."

Most people use one or two favorite search engines or directories to look for resources on the Internet. Yet if you ask them to tell you the difference between a "search engine" and a "directory," most will be at a loss.

Knowing the difference between a search engine and a directory may seem like a trivial matter, but for both searchers and those charged with making sure their own sites can be easily found, the distinction is very important. Web marketers and Webmasters (site managers) must know how search engines and directories work in order to properly register and market their firm's Web sites. So here is a brief explanation that will shed some light on this obscure topic.

Internet directories are somewhat similar to the phone company's Yellow Pages. Directories divide Internet resources into different categories to make it simple for individuals to locate what they are looking for. The first major Internet directory was Yahoo. It was developed by two students at Stanford University who decided to create a directory so that people could find things on the Web.

The benefit of directories like Yahoo is that everything is well-organized and easy to find. If you are looking for something that falls into a specific category, all that is required is to click on the index's category or sub- category.

There are two negatives to using a directory. First, if the resource you are searching for does not fall into a specific category, you will find locating it very difficult. Second, in order for the resource to appear, it must have been properly registered with the directory in the correct category. If the resource has not been properly registered with the directory, visitors will not be able to find it.

Search engines are text-searchable databases dynamically developed by robotic programs that search out the Internet for content. Search engines resemble the phone company's directory assistance (411), the difference being that, instead of getting a telephone listing, users get a list of Web pages containing words that match those the user is looking for. Most search engines allow the user to do a "key word" search. As a result, the user can enter one or more words to describe the topic or resource he or she is looking for.

One of the best search engines on the Internet is Altavista. Developed by the Digital Equipment Corp., it is the fastest search engine on the Internet. Search engines like Altavista and Infoseek (www.infoseek.com) allow searchers to waste little time in getting the results of their search.

Searching is rather simple. The searcher enters the terms or "key words" to scan the database. The engine orients the results so that the sites containing the most terms appear together at the top.

Search engines build their databases by deploying robotic software that scans home pages. The robot looks for words that match the searcher's request. The first place the robot looks when it scan a Web site's home page is the "Meta" tag line, an embedded descriptive text that is hidden to the viewer of the page but can be read by search engines.

The "Meta" tags allow the search engine to build a content database so when someone searches for a specific word or words, the search engine will return those sites that contain the "key word" in their Meta tag lines.

For example, New York's LeBoeuf, Lamb Green & MacRae's Meta tag line includes the following words: LeBoeuf, Lamb, legal counsel, attorney, lawyer, law firm, real estate law, trust & estate law, tax law, international law, municipal bonds, commonwealth of individual states, regulated states, Year 2000, plaintiff, defendant, license, legislation, regulation and wills.

Because "trust & estate law" does not appear on LeBoeuf's home page but does appear elsewhere on its site, a search engine looking for those words would not have identified the firm's site without the Meta tag line.

Today, many search engines and directories now allow you to perform searches in two different ways. For example, on the directory Yahoo, one can now conduct searches using its index of categories or the Altavista search engine which you can click on from the Yahoo home page. Not all search engines perform searches in the same way and not all search engines use Meta tags. It is therefore important to learn how each of them works so that you can optimize the discovery of your own site's content.

A law firm Web site can be a wonderful tool for marketing. However, the individuals in charge of marketing the site must have a good understanding of how directories and search engines work.


Yahoo! www.yahoo.com

Excite www.excite.com

Magellan www.mckinley.com

Findlaw www.findlaw.com


Altavista www.altavista.digital.com

Infoseek www.infoseek.com

Lycos www.lycos.com

WebCrawler www.webcrawler.com


Search.com www.search.com.


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