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Lesson #33




This lesson will introduce you to the advanced techniques of searching online textual information. It will also address some basic principles of Information Retrieval Science as they relate to Website optimization.


If you're like me, you're always looking for something. I jot things down on scraps of paper that get left around everywhere. I create little tornados of paper scraps as I move around the house hunting the one scrap of paper that I need at the moment. When I started using computers, I carried this bad habit over into my Cyberworld. I pull up notepad files and jot things down when in a hurry and save them to whatever location seems logical to me at the time. Only problem is, when it comes time to find it, I can never remember where I saved it.

Fortunately, it is easier to find things on a computer than it is in the physical world, but you have to know the fundamentals of text searching to make it work.

Sometimes it is easy. If you are searching for the notes of your last phone call with a specific prospect, you can search through all the files on your computer for the prospect's name (using the "Search" selection on your Start button of Windows and then selecting "for files or folders"), and it will likely come up. Sometimes it is more difficult. If the name doesn't bring it up, you will have to remember something about the conversation and come up with an exact phrase likely to appear in your notes.

(If you use Outlook or Outlook Express as your e-mail client, there is also a "find" feature that allows you to search through the text of your e-mail to isolate that specific message that you need to find.)

Whether you are searching your own computer or the Internet, if a unique word is involved, you can often search just for that word and find what you need. Other times, you have to think about combinations of more common words likely to appear in the desired document. Then you compose a search to find that combination of words.

Some people who do a lot of searching install more sophisticated search programs on their computers. Because words may show up in different forms, there are advanced strategies that can be used with these programs, such as "wildcards" and synonyms, to make your searches more effective. For example, if you are looking for the watering instructions for a new exotic plant in your garden, those instructions may use the word "water" or "watering," but you can't remember which. By placing a wildcard (usually an asterisk - * ) after the "r" in water, in programs that will allow this type of searching, you can pick up either word in a single search. In other cases, you may have to search for all possible synonyms of a word to make your search exhaustive. For example, if you are searching for information related to cars, various sources may use the word "car" or the word "automobile" or the word "vehicle." To get everything, you would have to search for all these words. To do this in a single search, the search program needs to have a synonyms operator. Otherwise, you will need to use Boolean connectors, which we will discuss below.


In our last lesson we discussed databases. In doing so, we used the example of creating database tables to keep up with our prospects. Recall that we created a primary table containing name, address, phone, etc. for each prospect. Then we created a secondary table to keep up with the contact history for our prospects. Let's now take that example a little further.

Since relationship building is so crucial to marketing, it is important to remember the personal things that prospects tell us about themselves in the course of our conversations with them. The issues that these prospects may talk about will be diverse, varying from prospect to prospect. Some may tell you about their relationship issues, others may speak of health issues, while others may tell you about their hobbies. Many will talk about their children or grandchildren. Thus, the personal "information" that prospects may share with you will not be "similar" or "structured." Therefore, it would appear difficult to design database fields to keep track of this information.

However, one "data type" available in most databases that will be useful in this situation is the "memo" field. A memo field is an alphanumeric field that will accept an unlimited amount of data in text format. Thus, in the "contact history" table that we created in our last lesson, we may want to add a memo field for "personal notes." In this field we could type free form textual data about whatever we discussed with the prospect. The next time we contact that prospect; we can pull up our prior notes from this field and review them.

However, what if we are trying to remember with whom we discussed a certain subject? We remember the subject but not the person. How do we find the person when we can only remember the subject? Simple database queries are not so helpful here. This would require the same type of word searching that we discussed above for finding files on your computer. You will have to think of word combinations likely to appear in your notes and then search the text of these memo fields for that combination.

Even though you are searching within a database in this example, you are using the techniques of text searching.


When you want to find information on the World Wide Web, you use the search engines to search the text of Web pages.

As we have discussed elsewhere in this course, search engines search more than just the displayed text of a Web page. Some search the contents of the meta tags (such as "title," "description," and "keywords"). Some engines search the anchor text of incoming links (i.e. they search the words used on the other Web page that links to the page). Most also search the "alt" text that accompanies the graphics on a Web page.

Understanding how these searches work is crucial to both finding the stuff you need with the search engines as well as designing your site to be found by others on the search engines.


As we mentioned in Lesson 31, the Lexus/Nexus service, which began in the 1970s, was the first popular commercial document retrieval service based on text searching. It indexes most major newspaper articles, magazine articles, statutory laws, and court opinions. Rather than going to the library and sweating over indexes, you can simply type a word search into the Lexus/Nexus system and it would bring up all the newspaper articles, magazine articles and/or court cases using that particular combination of words. The service is very expensive, however, and thus only affordable to a few conducting important research. I mention it here because it was a precursor for many of the techniques that search engines now use to find documents on the World Wide Web. As stated earlier, Information Retrieval Science is not new. It has been evolving for some time and will continue to evolve in the future.


Wherever you may be searching, the more refined your search, the fewer documents or pages you will have to sort through to find what you need. The more information you provide to the search program, the fewer results you will get and the more likely they will be on target.

When you go to the Yahoo! search engine, there is a link next to the search box titled "Advanced." At Google, there is a link titled "Advanced Search." These links provide a user-friendly way to employ a Boolean search. (You won't see the word "Boolean" at Google or Yahoo, but that is the traditional Information Retrieval Science term to describe searches that allow you to search for combinations of words using "connectors," such as AND, OR, etc.)

Both Google's and Yahoo!'s advanced search features give you the option to use multiple words and then decide how the search will treat them. At the time of this writing, those options on both search engines are to show results with: all of the words, the exact phrase, any of the words, and none of the words.

In Boolean terminology, the first option available on the advanced search (to search for documents with all of the words) is equivalent to placing the AND connector between the words. Thus, if your search words are "bass guitar players," this search will only bring up Websites containing all three words. In Boolean terms, the underlying search is read as..."Find me all documents containing the word 'bass' AND the word 'guitar' AND the word 'players.'" The search will not bring up documents containing one or two of the words. This is quite handy. Otherwise, your search would bring up sites that contained any of the words. You would have to filter through sites about bass fish, other types of guitars, and all sorts of stuff that would come up with the word "players." Using the Boolean AND connector helps to narrow your search significantly. (Both Yahoo! and Google allow you to type the AND connector directly into the basic search box, rather than using the advanced search page. Google calls this AND an "operator" rather than a "connector.")

This search for pages containing all three of the words will still bring up some irrelevant documents, however. Some pages will have all three words (bass, guitar, player) but they may be far apart on the page and unrelated to each other. For example, a page about a baseball player who enjoys bass fishing and 12-string guitar playing might come up with this search. Thus, this search can still besomewhat inefficient. The second advanced search option will help with this problem.

The second option Yahoo! gives you is the "exact phrase" option. This narrows the search even more than the AND connector. With this option, all three of the words have to be right next to each other and in the exact same order. In other words, your entire search is treated as a single entity, and documents are retrieved only if they contain that exact phrase. This would eliminate pages that happen to have all the words but apart from and unrelated to each other (such as our bass fishing, 12-string guitar playing baseball celebrity). In old-fashioned Boolean searches, this type of search was created by typing quotation marks around the words you wanted to be treated as an exact phrase. In a Yahoo! advanced search, however, you simply type the phrase into the indicated search box for that type of search; quotation marks are not necessary. (In both the Yahoo! and Google basic search forms, you can create a phrase search by using quotation marks without having to use the advanced search page.)

The third option in the Yahoo! advanced search is the same as the basic search. It searches for "any of these words." In Boolean terms, this search uses the OR connector between the words. Using our bass guitar players example, it would search for sites that contain either the word "bass" OR the word "guitar" OR the word "players." (This option is included in the advanced search even though it is the default in the basic search option because it can be used here in combination with the other advanced search criteria.)

The fourth box in the Yahoo! advanced search is "none of these words." Here, you can enter words you want to exclude in your search. For example, if you wanted to search for bass (the musical concept), you may want to exclude pages which also contain the words "fish or fishing" to clarify your search and eliminate sites discussing bass fishing. Thus, to search for bass music but not bass fishing pages with the advanced search form, you would put the words "fish" and "fishing" in this fourth box.

In Boolean terms, excluded words are usually designated with the BUT NOT or the dash or minus sign (-), connector. Thus, to search for bass music but not bass fishing in the basic search form, you could search with "bass -fishing -fish." Note that you must put a space before the dash in the basic search box. It is not necessary to use the dash in the advance search form. Any words typed into the fourth text box of the advanced form will be used to exclude pages that contain those words.

To clarify, on the advanced search pages you do not have to type any of these connectors we have mentioned. You use the connectors (or operators) only if you are submitting an advanced search using the basic search form. Thus, if you just want to use one of these advanced features and can remember the connector to use, you can use the basic form. If you can't remember the connector to use or you want to combine two or more of the advanced features for a very refined search, you will need to use the advanced search page. The advanced search form puts the connectors in for you behind the scenes. You do not have to type them in.

Google also has a synonym operator, which is called the tilde (~). Putting a tilde before a word will cause the engine to search for the word and all of its synonyms. Thus, the search "online ~opportunity" would bring up pages with the keywords "jobs" and "employment" in addition to the keyword "opportunity," because Google considers these words to be synonyms for the word "opportunity."

Interestingly, there are limitations to the intelligence used in these searches. For example, one would think that a search for "~online opportunity" would include the word "Internet" as a synonym for the word "online." I could see no evidence that it did, however. Google does not seem to recognize synonyms for the keyword "online." Thus, in this particular situation, you would have to use the OR connector and type in both words to create this search in the basic search form (or use the advanced search form and type both these words in the third box).

Despite minor limitations, advanced searches are quite powerful. Referring again to the Yahoo! advanced search page, you can combine all of these search criteria into a single search. You can search for pages that include all of the words in the first box and include the exact phrase you have typed into the second box, but exclude any sites that contain any of the words you type in the fourth box. With a little effort, you can create a very exacting search to find just what you need while excluding irrelevant sites that incidentally contain many of the same words.

In both Yahoo! and Google advanced searches, you can also eliminate outdated sites, limiting your results to only pages that have been updated within the time period that you specify. You can also limit your results to just certain file types. You can also use the "+" to force the search engine to search for a word it would normally exclude from the search. (Many common words are automatically excluded because they appear on so many pages.) The search engines also have many other features, preferences, and shortcuts that you can use. You can read about all of these features on the help pages of the search engine you are using.



Given the number of Websites on the World Wide Web today, there will likely be more than one Web page that matches the search criteria in any given search, regardless of how advanced that search may be. Thus, the search engines have the task of ordering the pages that do match one's search criteria. That is, the search engines have to guess which page you want to see first, second, third, and so on among the many pages that match your search. This becomes really important in less refined searches. Most searchers do not take the time to create sophisticated advanced searches. Most searches, therefore, result in a very large number of pages that match the search criteria (often in the millions)! The search engines are left to guess what might be important to the searcher. The method used by a particular search engine to make this guess controls the order in which the search engine displays the results of a search. Whether a page is first in a list of 98,000 page results for a particular search or last in that list becomes of extreme importance to both the searcher and the Webmasters of the pages that match the search criteria.

How the search engines determine the order in which results will be displayed for a given search is probably the most discussed issue in Internet marketing. The exact methods used by the search engines are closely guarded industrial secrets. They are so closely guarded because the search engines do not want anyone figuring out how to manipulate the results unfairly.

Notwithstanding the secrecy, there is a great deal that can be learned from studying Information Retrieval Science and then observing the behavior of the search engines in the context of those scientific principles. An entire industry of SEO's (Search Engine Optimizers) has arisen to assist businesses in designing their Websites to be ranked high in the results for a particular search. While many of these experts do more harm than good, there is a growing body of ethical and competent companies in this new industry.

There has also been good success by some do-it-yourselfers. Because most of the legitimate SEO's charge large fees and work for the larger companies, small businesses and home-based entrepreneurs usually have little choice but to take the do-it-yourself route with respect to Website optimization.

In order to successfully optimize your own Website, it helps to have some basic familiarity with Information Retrieval Science. You also need to carefully observe the search engines as they change their methods and strategies from time to time (to stay ahead of the manipulators). It also helps to frequent the Websites, blogs, and discussion boards where search engine methods are knowledgeably discussed.


It is beyond the scope of this lesson and even this course to provide an in-depth discussion of the science of Information Retrieval. However, it will be helpful in laying the foundation for future lessons on Website optimization, however, to introduce a few of the basic terms and concepts. (First, let me explain that while I have made a distinction between database and text searching in the last two lessons, the terminology of Information Retrieval does not necessarily do so. In general, it often refers to the collection of information to be searched as "the database" regardless of how that collection is structured.)

Here are some of the common terms:

Term Frequency (often represented mathematically as "tfi") is the number of times that a word appears in a document.

Document Length (often represented mathematically as "Li") is the total number of words in a document.

Document Frequency of a word or term (often represented mathematically as "dfi") is the number of documents containing the specific word or term in question, within a collection of documents.

The total number of documents in a collection (whether or not they contain the word in question) is often represented mathematically as "D."

Term Vector Theory provides a couple of useful formulas, using the above definitions. The first one determines Term Density (a/k/a Keyword Density). The second one determines Term Weight.

Let's start with the Keyword Density Formula:

Keyword Density = KDi = tfi/Li

That is, Keyword Density equals the Term Frequency divided by the total number of words in the document. Despite the scary looking math, this is really quite straightforward. It is just a simple measure of the concentration of a word in a document—the relative frequency of that word to the total number of words in the document. For example, if you have a document with 1,000 words total and uses the word "bass" 100 times, the Keyword Density for that document for the word "bass" is 100 divided by 1,000 or 1/10 or 0.1.

Many believe that search engines measure the Keyword Density of your Web page in ranking your page for a particular keyword.

Another formula brought to us by Term Vector Theory is a little more complicated.

Term Weight = wi = tfi * log(D/dfi)

That is, Term Weight equals the number of times a word appears in a document times the logarithm of a number calculated from the total number of documents in the collection divided by the number of documents in the collection containing the word. (And you swore to your high school algebra teacher that you would never have any practical use for this stuff!)

Term Weight is used to determine which of the words used in a search phrase should be given the most weight in the search results. For example, if you search for "a good fishing hole" on Yahoo! or Google, the words "a" and "good" will not help to order the results because they will appear in almost all of the pages indexed in the search engines. These words are too common to be useful in a search (unless they are treated as part of an exact phrase containing other less common words). Thus, for the search results to be meaningful, these words have to be identified and given very little, if any, weight in how the search results are displayed. On the other hand, very rare words used in a search phrase will be given high weight because they are useful in identifying a small number of documents containing the rare word which will then appear near the top of the results.

Said another way, term weight can be used to choose between words in a multiple word (OR connected) search as to how those words will affect the ordering of the results. If you are searching for Web pages including any of the multiple words you put in the search form (which is what the basic search form does), the search engine will have to decide how to display the results. In doing so, it will have to determine which one of the words in your search is most important, which one is next most important, and so on. In doing that, search engines are believed to use something similar to the "term weight "formula above.

It is really less complicated than you may think. Basically, very common words are given less weight in general. Rare words are given more weight in general. If a document contains a high frequency of a rare word, that document will be given great weight with respect to that word. If a document contains a low frequency of a common word, it will have very little or no weight with respect to that word.

The formula is most helpful, however, when searches use words that are neither particularly common nor particularly rare. The formula may be used to help the search engines make tedious choices in ranking the results from among the millions of Web pages on the Internet that match the search.

Another basic concept of Information Retrieval Science is that of Term Co-Occurrence (a/k/a Keyword Co-Occurrence)

Term Co-Occurrence has to do with how often two words show up in the same place together. The "place" referred to could be, among other things: a sentence, a paragraph, a document, or a Web page. For simplification, we will assume a Web page in our discussion. Term Co-Occurrence is a factor in "Semantic Connectivity"—how words relate to one another.

You can measure term co-occurrence for two keywords fairly easily. Go to Google and search for "bass." When I did that just now, it came up with 18,800,000 pages. Now run a separate search for "fishing." I came up with 25,600,000 pages. These two searches each measure the number of pages containing a single term, "bass" in the first and "fishing" in the second. Now run a search for pages that contain both "bass" and "fishing." This search, at the time of this writing, resulted in 2,280,000 pages. You can assign a value to the co-occurrence with the following formula:

c = n12/(n1 + n2 - n12)

Where n1 is the number of results containing the first word ("bass") and n2 is the number of results containing the second word ("fishing") and n12 is the number of results containing both words.

Plugging the numbers in, we get c= 2,280,000/18,800,000 + 25,600,000 - 2,280,000. If my math is correct, the answer should be approximately .05 (which sounds about right because the answer should be between 0 and 1).

Let's compare this with the term co-occurrence for the keywords "bass" and "guitar." Following the same procedure as above, I get approximately 0.15 as the value for c in the above formula.

Analyzing this, we see that, while neither of these numbers is very close to 1 (the largest possible value for co-occurrence), "bass" and "guitar" have a higher co-occurrence value than do "bass" and "fishing" in the Google search engine. That is, the word "bass" has a greater co-occurrence with the word "guitar" than it does with the word "fishing" within the Web pages indexed by Google.

This particular example is not very useful for any purpose, but just an explanation of how to work the formula. Does term co-occurrence have any relevancy to page ranking? The honest answer is that we don't know. But, we do know that search engines hire Information Retrieval scientists to help develop their ranking algorithms...and that Term Co-Occurrence is a concept that such scientists use in their research. Perhaps they use this measurement in some fashion to evaluate the relevancy of a page to a particular keyword.

Here is one way that the search engines might use this. They could develop a set of words that have a high co-occurrence with each of many of the popular keywords. When ranking a page for a keyword, they could look to see how many of these high co-occurrence words are also prominently used on the page. If they find a lot of words that have a high co-occurrence with the keyword in issue, they may give this page a higher ranking. The reasoning would be something along these lines. When people are writing naturally about a certain subject that is tied to the keyword, they will use a high incidence of these other semantically related words. If these other semantically related words are not present in sufficient numbers, the writing may be artificial, i.e. designed to manipulate the search engines with respect to the keyword in question.

If there are several other words in prominent places on the page that have a high co-occurrence with the keyword ranked for, perhaps they give that page a higher ranking. If all the other keywords on the page have a low co-occurrence value with the keyword ranked for, perhaps they give it a lower ranking.

Regardless of whether the search engines actually use term co-occurrence in the rankings, this concept does have some utility in optimizing your pages for particular keywords. With some investigation and some calculations, you can find words that have a high co-occurrence with the keyword you are targeting within a particular search engine. By using these words liberally in your meta tags and content, you can increase the likelihood of your page coming up for someone interested in that subject who searches with one of the other words. You will have determined other words they are likely to use and place them in your page, all due to your co-occurrence research!


Some familiarity with basic concepts of Information Retrieval Science can help you to perform better searches as well as help you better optimize your own Website. You should explore and experiment with the advanced search features of the major search engines, such as Yahoo! and Google. Identify the keywords you are targeting with your Website and experiment with different searches using these keywords. Examine the pages that rank high in the results of your searches. See if you can calculate keyword density, term weight, and keyword co-occurrence for the pages that rank high in your searches.

Remember that keyword density is a measure of the concentration of the use of a word on a page. Term Weight is a measure of the use of a word in one document to the use of the word in all other documents in the collection. Term Weight can be used to rank documents with relation to a particular search. Term Co-occurrence is a measure of how often words appear together in a particular document with respect to how often those words usually appear together. It is another way to test the relevancy of a document to a particular keyword used in a search.

Understanding how searches work behind the scenes is important to Internet Marketing.


Stay tuned to upcoming lessons in the Internet Income Course for detailed discussions of timely and important topics in Internet Marketing.

by George Little
Copyright (year) Panhandle On-Line, Inc.
License granted to Carson Services, Inc. for distribution to SFI affiliates. No part of this work may be republished, redistributed, or sold without written permission of the author.

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